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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

New Mexico Forest Flap

Air Date: Week of

In the village of Truchas in northern New Mexico, the centuries old Hispanic community and the U.S. Forest Service have come to a temporary agreement on the taking of firewood for the community's use. The felling of small green trees will be implemented to protect more mature arbors said to house Mexican spotted owls. Richard Mahler in Santa Fe, New Mexico explores this sometimes violent controversy.


CURWOOD: For centuries, villagers in northern New Mexico have gathered firewood from the mountains that surround their communities. The people there still speak the language of Cervantes centuries after their Spanish forebears built adobe homes on these rugged hillsides. This age-old practice of cutting fuel wood has recently put residents at odds with the Federal Government, which owns and manages the land, and with environmental activists who have taken legal action to preserve it. But as reporter Richard Mahler tells us, the clash of interests has led one community to seek a peaceful solution.

(Sound of wood being chopped)

CORDOVA: The major source of heating is wood; although we live in our modern society it's very much needed.

MAHLER: Max Cordova has always lived in the mountains of northern New Mexico. His ancestors, who came here in 1754, were among the founders of the village of Truchas through a Spanish land grant. Cordova is now president of that grant, which holds land in common for use by all Truchas residents. The villagers are mostly Hispanic and mostly poor. In summer they grow hay and graze cattle in communal meadows. Winters here are long and cold, and most people still use firewood to cook their meals and heat their homes.

(Fire blazes)

CORDOVA: We estimated that each household uses from 6 to 9 cords of wood a year to make it from one end to the other in the winter time.

MAHLER: In order to gather the wood they need, Truchas residents must obtain permits from the United States Forest Service, which designates trees to be cut. But that arrangement was complicated last fall when environmental groups won a lawsuit against the Forest Service. The suit faulted the Service for letting locals roam freely as they collected down and dead firewood, a practice said to disturb the Mexican spotted owl, an endangered species that nests in standing dead trees. Sam Hitt is the director of Forest Guardians, a plaintiff in the suit. Hitt accuses the government of ignoring the long-term impact of fire wood gathering, which he claims consumes at least 30 million board feet a year in the area.

HITT: We went to court, and we are forcing the Forest Service to comply with the law, which is to develop a sustainable fire wood plan. Years and years of planning, decades of planning, have not yet produced a sustainable fire wood plan.

MAHLER: But Gary Schiff, a spokesman for the Carson National Forest, disputes environmentalists' claims that fire wood gathering poses a threat to the spotted owl.

SCHIFF: We have yet to visually locate a Mexican spotted owl on the Carson National Forest. And we have probably spent $2 million plus out surveying with parabolic microphones and going out at night and looking for these animals as we're required to do. And I think a lot of local folks are concerned about that.

MAHLER: Many area residents say they'd like to see $2 million spent on improving the infrastructure of their communities, rather than searching for a bird that no one has seen in the area for 10 years. They feel the environmentalists' approach to forest management threatens their economic and physical survival. Truchas area resident Carol Miller.

MILLER: They bypassed an incredibly important step in the process of dealing with this lawsuit against the southwest region of the Forest Service, which was they basically ignored the communities. Since they knew what was best, they could just go to the courts and ask for a remedy without involving any of the people that live here. And that step, to me, was inexcusable.

MAHLER: The situation had all the makings of a nasty showdown. Environmentalist Sam Hitt was hung in effigy last winter by angry Truchas residents, and a ranger station was bombed: an event the FBI says may be linked to the controversy. But a compromise was finally reached. Environmentalists now support a Forest Service plan that allows small, living trees to be cut in order to thin an ecosystem that has become dangerously thick after decades of fire suppression. The Forest Service's Gary Schiff is issuing permits this spring for green fire wood that will be ready to burn next winter.

SCHIFF: They'll be thinning the forest in much the way that small, low intensity fires would do, taking a tree here and there. We're not talking about any kind of clear cutting or anything like that. And actually it would create what Mother Nature would do, only picking trees here and there.

MAHLER: The thinning program should provide Truchas with plenty of firewood over the next 20 years. Environmentalists hope village homes can be brought into the 20th century during that time, underscoring a conclusion all parties agree on. Truchas and other mountain villages must be weaned from their reliance on firewood as a primary fuel. Unfortunately, natural gas is unavailable and propane and electricity are too expensive for most residents. Experts say that if homes are weatherized and retrofitted to take advantage of New Mexico's abundant sunshine, many families could cut their wood consumption in half. But Carol Miller says few of her neighbors have the money to make such improvements. She fondly recalls a government program of the 1980s that trained residents to build heat-producing solar greenhouses.

MILLER: And that program was successful because it trained community people to basically build the greenhouses for their neighbors. So it dealt with some of the unemployment and it dealt with some of the changing to some new solar technology that we had just learned about. So I think that there are a lot of examples out there, but it's going to take money. Someone has to commit. I mean I think that's what will transform the communities.

MAHLER: But expansion of such programs is very unlikely in an era of government downsizing. That's according to Congressman Bill Richardson, the Democrat who represents the area in Washington, DC.

RICHARDSON: You can't promise the Federal dollar any more. It has to be self-reliance. It has to be self-help. If the government can be a catalyst and help with some loans, with some training programs, that's what we need to do. But we also have to have the private sector play a more active role. The days when we can deal with these problems through grants and funding through the government are over. It has to be more public-private partnership.

MAHLER: Max Cordova has seen no sign of those partnerships in his community, and without such intervention he predicts that many residents will be forced to leave the area. In the meantime, Cordova believes residents have no choice but to balance their priorities with those of Federal bureaucrats and big city environmentalists.

CORDOVA: We need to start finding that middle ground. We need to start working with each other. Nobody's going to get what he or she wants, but we're all going to be able to live with the agreement that we make. And what we're saying is, let's use the system itself to try to be all winners. Where the environmentalists win, where we win, where, you know, we start putting the friction between the groups aside.

(Bird calls in the mountains)

MAHLER: No one in Truchas is happy with the fire wood gathering compromise, but all parties concede that the situation could be worse. They agree that without effective, far-sighted management, there may be no forest left worth saving here 20 years from now. For Living on Earth, I'm Richard Mahler in Santa Fe, New Mexico.



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