|Ranger counting sheep in Tres Piedras 1939|
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 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...
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.