By DAVID CORREIA
Federal land management has been a disaster in New Mexico. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the United States Forest Service (USFS), which together administer 30 million acres (nearly a third of all land in New Mexico) present themselves as stewards of New Mexico’s forests, deserts, ranges and bosques. They aren’t. If you like what BLM does, you probably own an oil company. Last year the BLM approved nearly 1,100 drilling permits in New Mexico, nearly 20 percent more than the previous year and nearly as much as Utah and Colorado combined. While BLM permits more drilling, communities everywhere scramble to protect themselves from it. Despite towns going dry in Texas from water-hogging fracking operators and the widespread chemical poisoning of aquifers in Pennsylvania, the BLM recently revealed plans for more hydraulic fracturing, a method in which operators inject a toxic chemical slurry into the ground at high-pressure in order to fracture underground shale and extract the oil and gas trapped in the rock.
It gets worse. Before the rigs can extract oil, they first take up the slurry of chemicals used during the drilling process. This toxic concoction of chemicals and heavy metals finds its way into unlined open pits. The last time anyone bothered checking, in 2003, nearly 7,000 of these pits were leaching contaminants into New Mexico’s groundwater. Governor Susana Martinez recently gutted a new pit rule that would have banned the use of open pits. If fracking doesn’t foul our groundwater, the pits surely will.
While BLM is expanding, flush with oil and gas revenue, the USFS is dying on the vine, strangled by a declining budget. And that’s not entirely a bad thing. Like BLM in New Mexico, captive to corporate interests, the districts of the Santa Fe and Carson National Forests once operated like timber company field offices. Timber sales funded growing staffs, which made it possible to offer more and larger timber sales.
The Forest Service and its mission to manage timber for industry was born with a sweep of Teddy Roosevelt’s pen on Feb. 1, 1905; it died in New Mexico on March 16, 1993, the day the US Fish and Wildlife Service listed the Mexican spotted owl as a threatened species. That listing was the thunderclap announcing a gathering storm of environmental organizations that swept in after the ruling to sue the Forest Service into submission. The lawsuits disciplined the agency and transformed it from an appendage of industry to an arm of the environmental movement.
Environmental histories of New Mexico celebrate March 16, 1993 as the day the Forest Service died for our (timber) sins and was resurrected as an ecologically oriented agency. Walk into any district office in northern New Mexico. Where you once found rangers furiously preparing timber sales, you now find them polishing their environmental impact statements. Where you once found rangers huddling with timber executives, you now find them handing out trail maps to hikers.
And this is a good thing, right? They’ve been made to see the light, right? And, lo, the angel of ecology came upon the Forest Service, and the glory of Nature (and the threat of a lawsuit) shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. Right? Not quite. There is another view of the Forest Service that doesn’t see the agency’s legally mandated commitment to ecology as a revelation but rather as the renewal of a long history of mismanagement and paternalism in northern New Mexico.
That history began in 1944, a year in which the Forest Service found itself gripped by the imaginary fear of a looming timber famine. If there really was a timber famine, it was only because industry had exhausted timber in the east and midwest and found itself suddenly without forests to clear-cut. The threat of a timber famine in the middle of a war effort produced precisely the panic the timber industry intended. Lobbyists for the timber industry, eyeing the vast public lands of the west, wrote what became the 1944 Sustained Yield Forest Management Act, a law that promised to give commercial timber operators control of forests on public lands.
Sustained yield invaded New Mexico in 1944 like Stephen Kearny’s Army of the West invaded in 1846: An occupying army that was “just here to help out.” What the Forest Service found in New Mexico in the early 20th century was an economy organized around small-scale sheep farming, supplemented by household production, in an arrangement requiring close cooperation within and among villages. But the Forest Service taught its rangers to understand forestry solely through the prism of commercial timber, and so the strange world that rangers found in New Mexico made no sense at all. What do you make of a people who leave timber on the stump? What do you make of a people who remain unmoved by the profit potential of a ponderosa pine forest?
Consider a passage from a 1935 Forest Service report: “[New Mexicans] are sedentary in character living in the present and with no thought for the future. They accept conditions as they are and make the best of them with no idea of conserving the natural resources much less enhancement of them. They would remain in place to the point of extinction by starvation and disease before they would migrate.”
This is revealing language. To the Forest Service, the point of a forest is timber. Trees are only stumps-in-waiting. In sustained yield forestry, rangers found a way to “enhance” New Mexico. They slashed permits for livestock, explaining that local villagers’ animals were overgrazing ranges. Locals protested. I interviewed an older man in El Rito years ago about these cuts. He was a boy at the time, and he watched his grandfather argue with a local ranger. His grandfather told the ranger he needed the workhorses but didn’t have the money to feed them through winter. They’d starve, he said. So the ranger walked into the corral and shot the horses.
The claim of overgrazing, however, was just a pretense. In internal Forest Service memos, they described the cuts as necessary, not to protect ranges but to force locals into wage labor in the timber industry. It was a plan to turn peasants into proletarians.
The cuts culminated in the creation of the Vallecitos Federal Sustained Yield Unit (VFSYU), a special timber unit on the Carson’s El Rito District. During its heyday in the 1970s, the district office served as little more than a day labor operation for timber firms. To protect profitability, the district kept wage rates low; to keep locals trapped in low-wage jobs, the district cut more livestock permits. Rangers turned the forest into a factory. When workers went on strike in the 1950s, the Forest Service sided with the timber operator. The sawmill mysteriously burned down. Clear-cutting became common.
There is so much turnover in the Forest Service, and so little interest in the past among current rangers, that this history is unknown to them. The stories of those years fill their archives, but they never read it. And so what was once a ruse to rob permittees of a living—the myth of overgrazed ranges—is now the gospel truth to which all Forest Service employees pledge allegiance. The district maintains to this day that ranges have always been, and continue to be, overgrazed. They swear it is true—it’s written in their Environmental Impact Statements—and yet the El Rito staff has never included a rangeland ecologist, has never done field studies, has never taken samples, has never maintained a monitoring program?
For nearly a generation, the Forest Service has placed the interests of the timber industry above any ecological or social concern. Year after year local residents pleaded with the Forest Service to slow the pace of timber cutting, an ever-growing yield that always meant lower wages for workers, increased erosion and habitat destruction for the forest, but guaranteed profit for industry.
The commercial focus ended on March 16, 1993, but it is not a date celebrated in northern New Mexico. The environmental lawsuits that followed the listing of the Mexican spotted owl made no distinction between commercial and community-based forestry. Environmental organizations decided that they alone spoke for nature, and apparently nature likes middle-class, white people from the city who hike and camp and don’t own chainsaws. The lawsuits protected forests from corporate greed, but they also condemned the small-scale and sustainable timber and cooperative firewood industry that thinned overgrown forests and employed hundreds of northern New Mexicans.
But maybe you don’t care about traditional forest-dependent communities in New Mexico. Maybe you just like to hike or camp. You love nature, and you see the lawsuits as a victory and the Forest Service as an agency organized around your interests—devoted to protecting wild places. Think again. Your interests are not aligned with the Forest Service but rather find common cause with the land grant communities of northern New Mexico. And here’s why:
The Forest Service does not have the staff to manage a forest overrun by all-terrain vehicles. There is a new plan to manage off-road use of the forest, but no staff to enforce it. The budget has collapsed and left the agency unable to maintain roads, trails and campgrounds. Budget cuts have meant staff cuts and so the enormous task of thinning a thick and dying forest in the middle of a historic drought is beyond the ability of the Forest Service to plan and administer. Despite it all they still manage to cut what few livestock permits remain, forever blaming forest-dependent communities for their own century of mismanagement.
In the mid-1980s, a coalition of loggers, community activists and even a few environmentalists came together to form the VFSYU Association in an effort to force changes to Forest Service management. They recognized the problem with the Forest Service was not its institutional form but the imperatives that gave the institution momentum. It was charged with managing timber at all costs, and it did that job very well. But what if its job was to support local communities and ecologies? What new policies and practices would that imperative create?
The VFSYU Association suggested that instead of large yields for commercial operators, we should offer smaller yields to local loggers. We should end the exemption from state and local property taxes and use that money for schools, playgrounds and trails. Wildlife and fisheries management should benefit local communities. Jobs as hunting guides and the money from hunting permits should stay in the local community. We should train interested students in northern New Mexico in silviculture and rangeland ecology. And we should hire them to work in Forest Service offices.
We should invest in the infrastructure of a local economy: Small sawmills could offer good jobs and handle the small-diameter trees that overpopulate the forest. No more driving to the Los Alamos bomb factory to find a job. We should monitor the grasslands and forest ecology. In short, we should create management priorities that sustain a healthy forest and a local and sustainable forest economy.
While the Forest Service ignored these suggestions, we should not. The stakes are too high. Our forests are managed by an agency that was created to do one thing—manage timber—and today that is the one thing it can’t do. And the things it should do—support a local forest economy and protect forest ecologies in a changing climate—it won’t.
So let’s get rid of the Forest Service and support traditional forest-dependent communities in building a real alternative. There are efforts in the New Mexico legislature to reimagine public lands management. Demand that these efforts continue. Ignore the efforts of people like the Koch brothers, who seek to turn public lands over to the oil and gas industry. Support efforts that seek alternatives responsive not just to environmentalists in Santa Fe, but to the people who live and work in the forests of northern New Mexico.
This essay appeared previously in the Weekly Alibi