Andre Santistevan was chopping wood last year in his yard in Cañon when his chainsaw kicked back. Before he could do anything to control the blade, it lurched toward him, nearly cutting off his right arm.
One year later, he carries a deep scar, but still continues to do what has become a full-time job for him: sourcing, cutting, and delivering firewood to Taos County residents.
“It was definitely an eye opener,” he said of the accident. “I kind of took a step back and thought about what I was doing for my career and if it was worth it.
I just kept doing it,” he said of his firewood pursuit. “It's been one of the best careers that I've had so far.”
As colder months approach and some Taoseños begin to crank up their gas and electric heaters, many others have begun calling their local wood supplier. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, Taos County has one of the highest per-capita rates in the country for using firewood for heat.
An Aug. 26 story by J.R. Logan states that census data show that "just under-one third of households in the county burn firewood as their primary heat source, with an estimated annual demand of more than 12,000 cords countywide."
Meeting that demand every year are wood splitters and suppliers who, every fall, deliver thousands of cords of wood (128 cubic feet) to houses throughout Northern New Mexico.
An age-old tradition
For Santistevan, 26, born and raised in Taos, entering the business was an easy decision. He said while going to college at UNM-Taos, he fell back on an age-old regional tradition of cutting and supplying wood to his neighbors. Growing up and heading into the mountains with his family to gather wood had always been part of his lifestyle, so he figured doing it for others would be a flexible way to make some extra money while he finished school.
But that side gig quickly bloomed into a bigger business than he thought. “All of a sudden it started to become a daily, or a yearly thing. So we started to just switch our whole career over to firewood,” said Santistevan, who is one of the few who sell firewood as a full-time, year-round pursuit.
Veltran Trujillo also grew up with the tradition of cutting firewood with his family. When he went to cut wood up near Cerro Montoso on Monday (Nov. 29), he brought his father and four dogs. They made an outing of it.
“My dad is in his 70’s, and he’s a disabled veteran, so he obviously can't go anymore for himself, but he's like me — he likes to go,” said Trujillo. “So when I go, he goes, even if it's just to hang out, we'll go together.”
As Trujillo’s children grew up around wood cutting, they also became part of the crew. “They were born and raised in the woods, you know, fishing and camping and hiking,” Trujillo said, noting that his 11-year-old son has caught on to the fact that learning the trade can earn Taoseños a living.
Mark Flores, 38, can also relate to the long history of wood-gathering in the region. He said he remembers his grandfather talking about heading up into the mountains with his great-great-grandfather in a horse-drawn wagon.
“When I became of age to go get it myself safely, I started going up in the hills and bringing down firewood to heat my home,” he said.
From that point on, what was once just a tradition used to help keep the family warm became a burgeoning business, and for the past 18 years, Flores has been cutting and providing wood in Taos as a way to supplement his income.
Harder and more dangerous than it looks
Though many might assume turning to supplying firewood for additional income is an easy route to follow, it can be far more of an investment of time, energy and money than imagined, said Flores. “You need a four-wheel-drive [vehicle], you need a backhoe or a wood splitter, and then you need a chainsaw. So when you add what is needed just to get started, it is a substantial investment.”
This is not to mention the physical toll it can take, or the risks posed by felling trees or chopping wood. “I've had some real close calls,” he said. Luckily, he has never been seriously injured on the job. “Those trees have no feelings, they’ll pop you like a pimple,” he said.
Miguel Martinez, who has also been hauling wood as a part-time job for decades, agreed it was a significant monetary investment. “You have to pay for wear and tear on a vehicle, the maintenance on a vehicle, maintenance on a chainsaw, the wear and tear on one's body. You know? It all adds up.”
Martinez, 41, also noted the job's innate dangers. “It's hazardous, just felling trees in general… but I think it also keeps a person healthy and living. Just as long as I'm physically capable of doing it, I think I'll do it for the rest of my life,” he said.
Finding and sourcing the wood also takes time and effort. While some people buy from lumber yards or private landowners, others choose to buy permits to cut wood from BLM land or National Forests.
“It's always like a little search,” said Flores. “You're going up there [and] it's not a guarantee there's going to be a dead and down tree right there where you planned to go the last time. It's almost like a hunt every time you go for firewood.”
Martinez said for several years, when firewood prices were lower, it wasn’t worth the price of going and getting it, but he did it anyway. “For me, it's the love of firewood and the love of taking care of people that has driven me to get to this point.”
For the love of it
“I enjoy harvesting firewood, every aspect of it — being in the woods, running a chainsaw, all that stuff,” said Martinez. He also loves doing deliveries. “You meet some of Taos’ finest people. There’s a lot of cool locals and a lot of people that just moved here, and some of them turn out to be lifelong friends or lifelong customers.”
Like Martinez, Santistevan, Trujillo and Flores all said part of the reason they do what they do is because of their love for the outdoors and the surrounding community.
“I get to go out and spend time in the mountains and then pretty much work on my own time, then get to come back home around noon and spend the rest of the day with the kids,” said Santistevan. “It's really nice to be up there early in the morning and enjoy the sunrise and all the animals and stuff.”
Santistevan said he wasn’t a big fan of working a job with scheduled hours only to “miss out on most of the day trying to just make a couple bucks.” He said while he hasn’t gotten rich from selling wood, he is able to live comfortably with his wife and two kids.
The average cost of a cord of mixed soft wood in Northern New Mexico ranges between $220-260, according to Trujillo. For other, tree-specific wood, the prices can run higher. For piñon, the most popular variety in the region, a cord ranges from $325-400. The most expensive wood is cedar, which runs between $400-500 a cord.
Trujillo, who spent the past eight years working winters at Taos Ski Valley and summers at the Red Cloud Ranch in Valle Escondido, said he also isn’t a big fan of the typical work schedule. “I just love being outside. I’m not the inside, office type of person. I love the outdoors, I love the wildlife and I love the fresh air.”
Trujillo said since COVID hit, he has considered making firewood gathering into a full career. “I think I’d like to stick with it, you know, I think I'd rather kind of grow a small business here in Taos.”
Flores also reflected on his love for wood hauling. “I really enjoy being up in the hills and the mountains. It brings a lot of peace. It takes you away from the hustle and bustle of traffic, and electronics have a tendency not to work in certain areas.”
Everyone interviewed for this story also spoke of the importance of helping those in need. “I really feel like we provide a service to all our family and friends by helping them out,” said Trujillo.
“There's people out there that don't have a whole lot that I provide to,” said Miguel Martinez. “This is the way they survive.”
“I believe that it is important to be able to haul firewood where we live. It's different from other areas. We're blessed with this resource,” said Flores.