...In the mid-'80s, Lopez joined the U.S. Forest Service and got assigned to the office in Peñasco. Locals had the instinctual habit of giving the finger to anyone driving a green government truck. They didn't trust the feds. They had no faith that they were acting in the community's best interest.
Lopez managed to get past some of that wariness and used his understanding of local culture and needs to create a nationally recognized program now known as “Collaborative Stewardship.” Instead of offering big timber sales to outside contractors, Lopez helped craft a program to offer small plots of forest — a couple acres called a “stewardship block” — from which locals could gather wood and feel a sense of forest ownership. At the same time, the Forest Service was being paid a small fee to get some much-needed tree thinning finished.
Today, with the Rio Grande Water Fund aiming to restore hundreds of thousands of acres of forest while benefiting local communities, Lopez's program could be a useful tool in building grassroots support.
The innate distrust of outsiders among Peñasqueros comes from a long, sordid history of chicanery and exploitation.
Most of these tiny hamlets in the rolling foothills of the southern Sangre de Cristos were settled hundreds of years ago. Hispano pioneers relied on land grants — vast tracts of land presented by the Spanish crown — for their survival. Rivers for irrigation. Valleys for farming. And the mountains for firewood and building materials. In many cases, residents shared common access to these resources.
But when the territory became part of the U.S., many land grants were cut up and sold off. Anglo outsiders often logged the best timber off the mountains. By the early 1900s, much of the land had been absorbed by the Forest Service, which strictly regulated access to resources.
Local Hispanos still feel a deep sense of betrayal for the loss.