Land Water People Time

The Vital Role of Regional National Forests

Traditional, land-based communities benefit from age-old associations with our mountains and forests


For eons and centuries, New Mexico’s American Indians and Hispano people, respectively, depended heavily on local mountain forests to provide many of the essential elements needed for survival and quality of life. These essentials included timber, plant foods, medicines, wild game and fish. Waters derived from snowmelt and mountain rains fed irrigation acequias and the fields, meadows and orchards of lowland farmers. The forests also provided raw materials for numerous cottage industries.

This was a form of traditional resource procurement, where consumptive needs were satisfied with local resources through sustainable methods. These methods were developed by people learning how not to be overwhelmed by nature and how not to overwhelm it.

Long ago, nomadic clans followed migrating animals while helping themselves to plants and trees in their temporary encampments. They moved on, allowing the land to recover. Many deliberately set fires to burn off tangled brushland (greña and batán) and palizada (dead fallen trees). Within weeks, nutrients in the form of ash promoted greenery. Deliberate action to refrain from this would create a bosque — a scary, uncared for, tangled forest. By contrast, a clean, parklike forest with an open understory filled with grasses and wildflowers was called an alameda, which supported large numbers of deer, elks, and other grazing animals.

In lower elevations, people whose culture was devoted to raising domestic crops had their choice of dry farming or irrigated farming, the latter fed by waters that originate on forested uplands.

From Álamo Temblón to Zacate Azúl

Today, upper elevations in Northern New Mexico receive from 20 to 30 inches of rain per year, and total winter snowfall can be up to 20 feet. Many areas from 5,800 to 7,200 feet in elevation have only 120 to 160 frost-free days per year, and their inhabitants keep warm in winter with piñon or juniper (sabino) fuelwood taken from the mountain forests by woodcutters (leneros).

A century ago, Hispanic peddlers cut zacate azúl borreguero, or mutton bluegrass, in August from meadows near 7,000 feet, dried it carefully, and sold some to the Téwa Pueblos. Farther up the mountains, at 8,000 feet, pine dropseed grass known as popote (or pipette grass) was harvested and tied into bundles for brooms (escobas).

Natural medicines and other materials were also found in abundance in these mountain lands. Willow (jara) was useful for baskets, and its bark served as a headache medicine. The narrow-leaf cottonwood (alamo de hoja angosta) produced chewable gummy buds, and the aged trees yielded a bark that could be whittled with a pocketknife into useful objects. My grandmother used a spindle whorl (malacate), with a shaft of willow and a round weight of its bark, for spinning wool into yarn. A cousin of mine relates that he helped cure a man of gangrene in his foot by showing him how steep his infection in a tea made from escoba de la vívora (snakeweed). It can be found at elevations above 6,000 feet.

Around 10,000 feet, one finds ochá, a spicy-smelling root used to deter and suppress the effects of the common cold or to give a person strength. Disease was thought to originate from witches, and people tried to ward them off by carrying pieces of ochá in their pockets. (Many Hispanics living east of the Río Grande pronounce it osha while those to the west say ochá.) Dyeing wool required natural plant materials. One is Rocky Mountain beeplant (güaco), which provides black dye and is edible. Rock alum called piedra lumbre was used in a pot of boiling water with the dye to set colors.

Quaking aspen, or álamo temblón, yield long, lumpy beams called varias, useful for making corrals. These trees form groves called mogotes, which grow from a common root system as rhizomes; they are the first big trees to recolonize burn scars after a wildfire (quemazón). Younger aspens and evergreens made good latillas, or thin beams for pens and yard fences, to protect fowl from coyotes. Evergreens such as pinabete (ponderosa pine) and pino real (Douglas fir) are denser and heavier and therefore were useful as building and furniture material. A sectioned log was called a cuartón, and when it became a house beam it was a viga. If used to make the portal of an adobe home, this vertical support was called a puntal. All of these woods may twist as they dry. A skillful Hispanic wood-carver in the Spanish colonial style would use the hebra, or wood grain, to chisel decorative motifs and symbols on cabinets, chairs and porch pillars.

After the first Spanish colonists arrived in Nuevo Mejico in 1598, the authorities gave mercedes (land grants) to families and other groups of settlers, providing them legal title to the land and its resources. With Mexican independence in 1821 came international trade with the United States; annexation to the United States followed the Mexican American War of 1848. Big changes were on the horizon for communities and individuals whose livelihood was tied to the forested realms.

A New Era and Land Ethic Arrives

Today in Northern New Mexico, many of the activities and resources described above fall under the authority and jurisdiction of the U.S. Forest Service. Lifeways established for generations have been significantly altered and are now highly regulated. Individuals are no longer free to take what they need or want from the forests. Such changes have not come without some lingering resentments and conflicts between the traditional users of these lands and federal authorities.

The original mission of the Forest Service, created in 1905, was to scientifically manage forests for wood supply, to protect watersheds and to offer a livelihood to homesteaders through agricultural activity. The homestead acts passed by Congress that followed allowed citizens to apply for up to 160 acres of forestland, but if parts of the land were not chiefly valuable for agriculture, the area could be reduced to as little as 80 acres. USFS rangers were in charge of quantifying everything, including a homesteader’s house and how many acres were planted with oats and alverjón (peas). Many applicants were Hispanics in New Mexico and Arizona living within Spanish or Mexican land grants that the U.S. government had refused to honor. From 1906 to 1937, only about 30 percent of the applicants trying to privatize land out of the Santa Fe National Forest were successful.

Thus Congress unwittingly impacted mountain Hispanic culture in Northern New Mexico, steering it away from traditional village life toward rugged American individualism. Original heirs of the Spanish and Mexican land grants perhaps lost more than 80 percent of their land.

Livestock ranching changed in the Carson and Santa Fe National Forests from the 1920s to the 1960s as the Forest Service introduced range improvement programs while reducing grazing permits and restricting or banning goats and sheep. Modernization during this time changed the economy from independent subsistence farming to cash-based wage labor and urban life.

Love of the Land Endures

Why do people continue to farm and ranch in Northern New Mexico’s mountains? According to Carol Raish, a research social scientist at the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Research Station, continuity with the past, tradition and culture appear to be the best explanations.

In the 1990s, the Forest Service commissioned sociological studies to gain understanding and to lay the groundwork for making some amends. One study published in 2003 showed that a quarter of cattle permittees in the Canjilón and Española Ranger Districts worked in trades, as technicians and in other non-ranch jobs. The most common crop on small irrigated farms was livestock pasture, watered from forest streams, because this work lent itself to evening and weekend labor. Surveys found that the goal of ranching for 55 percent of the responders was to maintain quality of life and for 41percent to maintain traditional values. Responders vigorously cited the importance of teaching their children family values, responsibility, the love of animals and the value of hard work.

Permittees viewed their livestock as savings accounts as well as food, and 82 percent stated that they had small herds of fewer than 99 head. Few had sheep because they required extra care and had to graze on private land (except in Carson National Forest, where they are still permitted).

Some livestock owners have experienced the insensitivities of recreationalists, environmentalists and others who despise seeing cattle on forest land. These ranchers are holding on to small fragments of the era of subsistence farming, homesteading and traditional resource procurement, and the ancient connection humans have with their food and local landscapes.

You will see them on horseback or all-terrain vehicles with ropes, rifles and tools, managing their cattle and checking water sources. Their reasons for using the forest are similar to those of campers, backpackers, hikers, motorcyclists, ATV enthusiasts, trout fishers and hunters. Being in the outdoors is a mentally healthy activity and an escape from a postmodern industrialized world. Significant numbers of my students at Northern New Mexico College in Española report that their favorite pastime is to go to the mountains. This surprises me considering the addictive-like quality of cities and modern gadgetry.

Our forests and their watersheds require oversight and a regulator, however imperfect, regarding what and how much people can demand from them. The USFS is here to stay, and it is time for a new working relationship that puts the benefit of the land first and foremost.

The USFS in Northern New Mexico

Spanning large portions of north-central New Mexico are two large national forests, the Carson located to the north and the Santa Fe to the south.

Carson National Forest encompasses 1.5 million acres, largely in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, and Santa Fe National Forest covers 1,588,00 acres in both the Sangres and the Jemez Mountains.

Both are home to a myriad of plants, animals, geologic features and scenes of amazing beauty and serenity. They are actively used for camping, hunting, fishing, downhill and cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, snowshoeing, birding, hiking, horseback riding, wildlife viewing, collecting of wild plants, berries and herbs, the harvesting of firewood and building timbers, livestock grazing and many other activities.

They are also the source of clean water for drinking and irrigation, and they act like the lungs of the planet, sequestering carbon and releasing oxygen. In short, these forests are indispensible for life as we know it and for enriching our existence on both the physical and spiritual planes.


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