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Firewood Issue Fuels Battle in New Mexico Mountains : Forests: Villagers say suit limiting access to key heating source puts wildlife protection ahead of human needs.

December 01, 1995|FRANK CLIFFORD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TRUCHAS, N. M. — For nearly three centuries, the inhabitants of isolated mountain villages in northern New Mexico have heated their homes and cooked their meals with firewood collected from the surrounding forests.

Wood was abundant and, until this year, free for the taking. But now a lawsuit to protect the Mexican spotted owl, a bird that residents say they've never seen, has prompted the U.S. Forest Service to put much of the woods off limits.

Cut off from their traditional winter heat source, people are wondering how they will stay warm as temperatures in the mountains turn frigid. An emergency appeal has gone out on behalf of 98 mostly elderly families who may not have enough wood to last through Christmas. Earlier this week, people here awoke to the first snowfall of the season.

Meanwhile, their plight is aggravating longstanding tensions between mostly white environmentalists in Santa Fe and Albuquerque and inhabitants of remote villages who trace their ancestry to the original Spanish settlers. The controversy has heated up the rhetoric heard across the West these days that the environmental movement is insensitive to the welfare of people.

"These guys don't give a damn about human needs," said Richard Rosenstock, a lawyer representing La Compania Ocho, a locally owned logging operation in tiny Vallecitos whose access to timber has been restricted by the lawsuit.

In Santa Fe, the historic state capital where tensions between the old and the new run high anyway, 250 demonstrators recently conducted a mock hanging of two local environmental activists who joined in the suit to protect the owl.

Crying foul, the environmentalists insist that the Forest Service itself created the crisis by overreacting--perhaps intentionally--to a lawsuit that did not target firewood.

"This whole thing has been manipulated by the Forest Service," said Sam Hitt of Forest Guardians, one of the groups that filed the suit. "There's plenty of wood out there suitable for firewood that the Forest Service could make available if they didn't want to scapegoat us."

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But that argument has not prevented some local environmentalists from disassociating themselves from the forest activists. Roberto Mondragon, who ran as the New Mexico Green Party's candidate for governor last year, was among the throng that gathered for the mock hanging last week.

"I was troubled," said Mondragon, "because the environmentalists went ahead with their legal strategy without ever asking for input from the people who would be most affected--the people of Truchas, Cordova and the other villages."

Now, environmentalists are facing the kind of backlash that could do serious damage to their cause in this part of the country, if not elsewhere.

"Racial tension has grown enormously as a result of this," said Maria Varela, the founder of a wool-growing cooperative in Los Ojos who has friends on both sides of the environmental divide in northern New Mexico.

"Many Hispanics see this as yet another unwarranted intrusion on their ancestral lands," Varela said. "They see it as a form of recolonization."

The tension dates back to the early 1900s when lands, originally part of Spanish and Mexican land grants, were incorporated into the Carson National Forest, which covers 1.5 million acres and encompasses more than 30 small towns. With national forest designation came permits and quotas governing livestock grazing and logging that had gone unregulated since the first Spanish settlers took up residence in the 1700s.

In recent years, environmental groups, expanding with the tide of urban exiles from the east and west coasts, have pushed for tighter controls on national forest land to counteract the effects of excessive grazing and logging.

In August, a coalition of environmental groups in Arizona and New Mexico won a federal court injunction forcing the Forest Service to adopt stricter policies to protect the woodland habitat of the Mexican spotted owl.

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The ruling was especially irksome to residents of northern New Mexico because the Forest Service had spent $1.5 million searching for owls in the Carson Forest and could not find any within 100 miles of Truchas. The only owls found were in a distant section of the forest near the Colorado border.

Nonetheless, in a settlement reached with the environmental groups, Forest Service officials put new restrictions on commercial logging. They also imposed limits on a centuries-old practice of "free-roaming" firewood collection in the Carson Forest by local residents.

This region's land and people have occupied a special place in the American imagination. The area was a bohemian oasis for novelist D.H. Lawrence in the 1920s. Painter Georgia O'Keeffe lived just outside the Carson Forest and drew inspiration from its pinon-studded canyons.

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