Land Water People Time

Creating a Community Forest

Carson National forest reaches out to rural historic residents


The Carson National Forest is embarking on a new and improved relationship with Northern New Mexico’s rural peoples and what it calls “traditional historic communities,” composed largely of Hispanic residents who trace their roots back centuries and Pueblo Indians whose ancestors arrived even earlier.

“We need to invest in learning,” notes Carson supervisor James Duran. “We know we can do a better job of public service, and the community outreach and engagement we are undertaking is real important to me and all our staff. We are going to be involving communities to a much greater degree. I stress to staff that we are not just federal employees in the community; we are part of these communities.”

This is a very different sentiment and approach from the century-long history of mistrust, resentment and even hostile relations between forest authorities and rural, forest-edge communities in the region.

“We have very unique conditions in Northern New Mexico, with many people dependent, and there’s a lot of truth to the story of locals’ dispossession,” acknowledges Duran. He should know, as he was born and raised in the small town of La Jara, on the fringes of Santa Fe National Forest near Cuba. With his personal familiarity with the prevailing sentiments of the past, and having worked in all of New Mexico’s national forests, he seems to be the perfect person for ushering in this new working relationship.

“We can’t control the past,” he notes, “but we can improve the situation going forward. That is my goal, and we have already built strong bonds with many of our partners.”

Revised Forest Plan

Carson is already years into the process of reaching out to locals to gather input on the forest’s revised land management plan. The draft plan, created with input on desired conditions and management objectives gathered from more than 60 public meetings, was released in May 2019. The final comment period will run into fall 2019, and the final plan and record of decision are expected to be finalized in late 2020 or early 2021. The plan will guide Forest Service programs and priorities for the next 15 years or so.This massive effort is being led by Forest Planner Peter Rich, who expects to hold a dozen or so meetings in the months ahead to discuss the draft plan and will also solicit comments at monthly meetings at the forest supervisor’s office in Taos. He notes, “I think we’ve captured the range of what the public has told us” regarding their desired outcomes, forest practices and policies. “The previous plan, released in 1986, did not even look at traditional uses by historic communities,” while the new plan will have an entire section addressing this topic.

Topics engendering the most passionate input, he says, have included water use, watershed and forest health (including overgrown forests and necessary thinning operations; see related story), riparian and wetland protections, and wilderness creation and uses.

The Carson is coordinating its findings and public process with the Santa Fe and Cibola National Forests, which are also updating their land management plans to create consistent policies across all Northern New Mexico national forests.

“It’s been a long process, and I want to thank the public for their interest and dedication to turn out for meetings, to get involved and to help us write the new plan,” says Rich. “We’ve come to recognize these historic communities’ deep association with the forests and their dependence on these traditional resources.”

Denise Ottaviano, Carson’s public information officer, has also played a significant role in changing the dynamic between Forest Service personnel and local residents. She says, “We all share in the responsibility of stewarding our public lands. The Carson National Forest will continue to find creative ways of working together with our partners to restore the health of our forests and watersheds for the economic and ecological health of our communities.” 

Community Stewardship

Leñeros Leading the Way to a Healthier Forest

A partnership between The Carson National Forest is also embarking on another outreach and partnership project with land-based communities, this one designed to encourage firewood collection by locals while reducing wildfire hazards in the region.

Forest management has set aside areas that have already received approval from the federal government for thinning operations and fuels removal. Community members —those familiar with use of chainsaws, axes and cutting wedges — will cut these areas. These leñeros will be self-managed, with the guidance of an appointed boss, the mayordomo — the name referencing individuals who direct community ditch associations across Northern New Mexico.

The leñeros get to keep wood for their own use or to sell, and they will be modestly paid to cut and remove the wood, including money for gas to get to the remote sites, maintenance of chainsaws, and fuel for saws.

The program allows leñeros to harvest firewood in a manner that serves the fuelwood demand while improving watershed health and mitigating fire risk to communities and surrounding watersheds. Reducing wood mass on forestlands dramatically reduces the severity of wildfires. It also will provide a boost to rural, traditional economies.

Some 302 acres have been set aside in the San Cristobal and Gallina Creek areas within the Questa Ranger District. A total of 39 single-acre fuelwood blocks have been laid out and marked near Gallina Creek, and the first permits were issued in April 2019. Sixty more 1-acre blocks will be laid out and marked near San Cristobal in June. The goal is to treat approximately 100 acres per year for the next three years.

A community organization known as the Cerro Negro Forest Council was formed, with representation from the San Cristobal Neighborhood Association, the San Cristobal Ditch Association, the Arroyo Hondo Arriba Community Land Grant, Acequia de San Antonio and the Greater Gallina Canyon Firewise Community.  This organization competed for and received a grant from the Collaborative Forest Restoration Program to get the project up and running. It will fund operations for three years.

The Camino Real Ranger District — with financial support from the Nature Conservancy (through its Rio Grande Water Fund) and the Forest Guild — is planning a similar project on 240 acres in the Rio Trampas area, tentatively set for 2021.

The goal going forward, according to Carson Forest management, is to provide each community in Northern New Mexico an opportunity to apply for these funds and programs

Excerpts From Draft Carson National Forest Land Management Plan

  • “The land is a common thread that binds all people. Our mountain landscapes are a life-sustaining resource and they help us form individual and community relationships, provide for continuity of cultural identity, strengthen ancestral connections, and contribute to the economic sustainability and stability for local communities.”
  • “The Carson’s vision for social, cultural and economic sustainability is to manage toward a healthy, diverse, and productive forest that meets the needs of traditional communities, now and into the future. Sustainable management of natural resources ensures that the availability of goods and services is achieved and land productivity is maintained.”
  • “There are numerous small, unincorporated communities within the boundaries of the Carson, as well as several adjacent federally recognized tribes and small incorporated towns and villages. The Carson is a community forest and each of these communities is geographically and historically rooted to a particular landscape.”
  • “A rural historic community refers to the many peoples of northern New Mexico whose families have strong historical ties to the land. The Carson and use of its resources are integral to the subsistence, cultural, and social values that help define the people and communities. The founding of the community generally predates the establishment of the U.S. Forest Service. The community has a significant concentration of human activity, linkage, and continuity of land use on or immediately adjacent to the Carson.”
  • “Long-standing, land-based traditional communities established themselves and persisted in large part due to their proximity to needed resources. Plants are used for food, medicine, and ceremonial purposes; wood was used for construction, fencing, heat, and ceremonial fires; perennial streams were utilized for domestic needs and sometimes controlled to provide water for agricultural needs or mechanical power; pasture land was utilized and springs developed to support sheep and cattle; and arable land was utilized for crops and orchards.”
  • “The Carson manages the natural resources and landscapes that sustain northern New Mexico traditional communities, their cultures, and traditions, now and into the future. Local heritage, culture, traditions, and values have been handed down over generations and predate United States management of this area. Long-standing use of the forest and its natural resources are fundamental to the interconnected economic, social, and cultural vitality of many northern New Mexico inhabitants, including federally recognized tribes and pueblos, Spanish and Mexican land grants-mercedes and acequias, grazing permit holders, and other rural historic communities. In managing National Forest System lands, it is important to allow opportunities for these communities to be engaged with the Carson, so that sustained use of the national forest for cultural and subsistence needs are supported.”

The draft plan also suggests 11 possible management tactics going forward, including the following:

  • “Coordinate with rural historic communities, such as land grant-merced and acequia governing bodies, to gain local perspectives, needs, and concerns, as well as traditional knowledge, and consider how this information can be incorporated into project design and decisions.”
  • “Consider ways of educating northern New Mexico youth in local culture, history, and land stewardship, and for exchanging information between community elders and youth. Work with land grant and acequia governing bodies, rural communities, and other community leaders to continually improve relationships and discuss shared opportunities to design projects that contribute to the cultural integrity of the many forest-dependent traditional communities.”


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