Peñasco Votes “No” on Proposal to Expand Pecos Wilderness

By KAY MATTHEWS

Not surprisingly, the Peñasco Community Center was packed for the November 7 presentation by the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance on its proposal to expand the boundaries of the Pecos Wilderness (by 120,000+ acres). Presentation is not the right word for what transpired, however. Bonifacio Vasquez, member of the Santa Barbara Land Grant and acequia parciante from Llano, who chaired the meeting (the moderator the Alliance brought from Santa Fe was quickly rendered ineffectual) had to threaten to eject a group of men standing at the back of the building who shouted over everyone else before the meeting tortuously continued for two more hours.

There are no shades of gray in the land grant perception that any expansion of the wilderness constitutes a further taking of the land grant commons, a commons that was stolen by the dominant culture and now lies largely in the hands of the United States Forest Service. Or, as many at the meeting who refuse to acknowledge the actual loss of ownership put it, “The management is under the Forest Service but it still belongs to us” (Alex Lopez, Las Trampas Land Grant).

There’s not much gray in the position taken by the Wilderness Alliance, either: no discussion of the mutability of what is meant by “wilderness” or the concept of “inhabited wilderness” that developed during the 1990s struggles between environmentalists and land based communities in el norte. At previous meetings that were held in Peñasco and before the county commission in Taos, the Alliance used the scare tactic that national forest lands are in danger of being taken over by the states and a wilderness designation provides more protection (see August 27, 2015 La Jicarita). This time they raised a different specter: a wilderness designation will protect these lands from development dangers such as mining and commercial logging. And they added a twist: the three Alliance members who made (or tried to make) the presentation were all descendants of land grants who could also claim that “we should protect it now in case we get it back.”

This elicited a firestorm of comments ranging from the comic—“You mean there’s gold up there?”—to the jaded—“We’ve been protecting that land since our great-grandfathers got it from the King of Spain and we don’t need you telling us how to take care of it.”

There were also many substantive comments that addressed potential consequences of a wilderness designation. Several folks pointed out that their main concern was the fire danger created by the overgrown forest, including the wilderness area, and that expanding the wilderness would preclude entry with mechanical equipment to thin the overstock or effectively fight fires that threatened communities.

At the Wilderness Alliance information table there was a handout called “Wildfire and Wilderness, A Brief Primer,” which claims that the Wilderness Act allows for flexibility in managing fires in wilderness areas. It emphasizes that fire management should be geared towards allowing fire to function in its natural ecological role. As I wrote in my previous La Jicarita article, while this policy may be good in theory, on the ground conditions in the Pecos Wilderness have created a new fire category called “too dangerous to fight” because of the build up of ground fuels and overstocked trees. The “too dangerous to fight” category seems likely to become the agency’s default position as so many fires become essentially uncontrollable conflagrations because of these ground conditions that are exacerbated by drought and climate change.

Many more folks complained that the Forest Service can’t take care of the forest right now, much less the wilderness, because it’s underfunded and understaffed. Off road vehicle intrusion is one of the biggest concerns in the communities and designating more wilderness on paper doesn’t mean there won’t be just as much intrusion on the ground.

Tammy Malone, Camino Real District Ranger, who attended the meeting, explained to the crowd that the Forest Service hasn’t taken a position on the Wilderness Alliance’s proposal: wilderness designation has to made at the Congressional level. If this proposal ever comes to fruition then the agency would have to manage it as designated in the forest plan. Coincidentally, the Carson Forest Plan is currently being revised, as are most of the region’s plans that are now deemed out of date.

map187There was some Sipapu Ski Area and Summer Resort bashing throughout the afternoon.The owners of the ski area are on record opposing the extension of the Pecos boundaries as it would limit the resort’s access to ATV trails, a large part of its summer business. The ski area sits on the north end of the Alliance’s proposed wilderness boundary change, but along a buffer zone the group calls a Special Management Area (SMA), which covers 14,612 acres. Several people at the meeting claimed that the Alliance had designated the area a SMA instead of wilderness to allow the resort to continue using it for their ATV clients, making money off their common lands. According to Mark Allison, Executive Director of the Alliance, these acres were originally designated as wilderness in the Alliance’s proposal but community people pointed out there were ATV trails within these lands that they used for hunting access, and the Alliance changed the designation for that reason. The changed designation will benefit Sipapu as well, of course.

I asked Allison if his group had conducted an analysis of whether the expanded boundary incorporated any acequia presas and structures. For many years now the acequia community has been embroiled in arguments with the Forest Service over whether special use permits are required to access acequia structures that lie within the national forest for repairs or maintenance. The acequias have been on the losing end of the argument as the agency has demanded that access for anything more than routine maintenance—which it also insists on defining—requires a NEPA analysis and special use permit. Allison said to his knowledge that except for the Acequias de las Sierras, the La Jicarita watershed trans-basin ditches that deliver water to the Mora Valley, there are no headgates or structures within the proposal area. According to Allison the Alliance is working with the parciantes of the Las Sierras acequias.

Compuerta on one of the Acequias de las Sierras
Headgate on one of the Acequias de las Sierras. Photo by Kay Matthews

The meeting ended with an overwhelming vote against the proposal. The Alliance still plans to present it to the Taos County Commission, however, perhaps this month. John Olivas, one of the presenters for the Alliance, and also a member of the Mora Land Grant, stated near the end of the meeting that the Mora County Commission had passed a resolution in support of the proposal. Olivas is the former Mora County Commissioner under whose tenure the county passed a Bill of Rights Ordinance banning oil and gas development; the county was subsequently sued by the industry and landowners and forced to rescind the ban. Olivas was defeated in his re-election bid. I contacted Paula Garcia, currently the Vice Chair of the Mora County Commission, and she told me that the commission had approved the resolution when Olivas was the chair (she cast a dissenting vote) and that she’s been approached about rescinding the resolution now that there’s a new commission.

Again, any decision to expand the boundaries of the wilderness will have to be made at the federal legislative level, but resolutions by local government and organizational entities will influence that decision. Candyce O’Donnell, the Peñasco area Taos County Commissioner who helped organize the meeting, reminded everyone that there are four other commissioners who need to hear their voices.

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5 comments

    • No one representing Picuris made a statement at the meeting at the Peñasco Community Center. I believe the current governor has expressed support for the proposal to extend the wilderness but I haven’t verified that. The Taos County Commission will be hearing from county residents regarding the proposal at Tuesday’s commission meeting (November 17).

  1. Thanks Kay. To clarify one point, the Wilderness Alliance isn’t proposing this on its own. The Protect the Pecos Coalition consists of a broad array of grassroots stakeholder groups. The presenters in Penasco represented not just the Wilderness Alliance but also the NM Wildlife Federation and the Wilderness Society, all of which have hundreds of supporters in Taos County. In addition to conservation and sportsman interests, the Protect the Pecos Coalition is proud to have hundreds of local residents and area businesses stand in support of these lands. Picuris does support the proposal and I was happy to see the recent Op-Ed piece in the Taos News from the perspective of a veteran. While the meeting in Penasco was disappointing, it is important for context to acknowledge that those voices opposing protection of these areas represent a very small fraction of Taos County. Indeed, I received an e-mail the morning after that meeting from a parciante who wanted us to know that she was supportive.

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