Fear and Firewood

Llano, New Mexico.

The first snows of fall dusted the high valleys of northern New Mexico’s Sangre de Cristo Mountains about the same time many residents of this beautiful and rugged landscape received an ominous letter from a man called Leonard Lucero. Lucero’s letter warned that because of a federal court ruling on the Mexican spotted owl in a suit brought by environmentalists, many people would be prohibited from gathering firewood from the Carson National Forest this fall.

The letter hit its target, sparking angry protests and menacing telephone calls to New Mexico environmentalists Sam Hitt and Joanie Berde. Lucero is not a Wise-Use agitator. He’s supervisor of the Carson National Forest, part of the new, kinder, and gentler Forest Service. Lucero is not a newcomer to the agency, however. Indeed, he owns a particularly vicious resumé, capped, perhaps, by his orchestration of the massacre at Millennium Grove, where he permitted Willamette Industries to clearcut the oldest trees in Oregon on Easter weekend 1985, even though he knew a federal court had issued an injunction against the sale.

In New Mexico, Lucero got away with his outrageous provocations. Newspapers throughout the state editorialized against the injunction. Even Bill Richardson condemned the ruling. Richardson, at least moderately sympathetic to environmental causes, wrote a blistering letter to environmentalists chastising them for their insensitivity to the rural poor and to the “custom” and “culture” of the communities of northern New Mexico. Richardson closed by threatening a sufficiency language rider to bypass the Endangered Species Act unless environmentalists allowed firewood cutting to resume.

But Richardson was misinformed. The fuel wood crisis had little to do with insensitive environmentalists. A year before the dramatic ruling on the Mexican Spotted Owl, Sam Hitt’s group Forest Guardians, for example, had raised $35,000 to buy firewood-splitting equipment for a small Hispanic logging company based in Vallecitos. Instead, the current situation is due almost entirely to the entrenched malfeasance of the Forest Service.

In response to Federal Judge Carl Muecke’s order to halt timber cutting, the Forest Service chose to shut down virtually everything, including firewood and Christmas tree cutting. J. Fife Symington III, governor of Arizona, delivered the message: environmentalists are arrogant grinches, holding Christmas hostage. It was a deliberate strategy to generate a violent backlash against the owl and its proponents. Lucero know that the firewood issue carried a cultural resonance, and he exploited it. Moreover, the agency has learned its lessons from similar injunctions, particularly in Idaho where outrage generated by timber and mining companies caused the Wilderness Society and Pacific Rivers Council to drop an injunction protecting salmon habitat. The lesson: find a scapegoat and make them feel political pain.

To understand how firewood could erupt into an angry uprising, you must delve into the complex social history of northern New Mexico. Much of this terrain remains in dispute, entangled in broken treaties, sophisticated swindles, and thousands of promises betrayed by the federal government. This is the country where, in 1967, Reies Lopex Tijerina and his comrades in the Alianza Federal de las Mercedes (Federal Alliance of Free City States) seized the courthouse at Tierra Amarillo in a desperate act of symbolic defiance, a violent call for the return of Spanish land grants secured to Hispanics in the Treatie of Guadeloupe Hidalgo. Much of that land is now part of the Carson National Forest. The Alianza’s courthouse raid ended in a fierce gun battle, Tijerina’s arrest, and a resentment that still seethes.

It is this festering animosity that Lucero and his PR flack Gary Schiff, attempted to stoke and redirect at environmentalists. Soon after Jude Muecke imposed his injunction, Schiff took to local radio stations and said the people responsible for the firewood shutdown were Sam Hitt, Joanie Berde, and the Forest Conservation Council’s John Talberth. They were the reason, Schiff intoned, some people might not have enough wood to get themselves through a harsh winter. The implication was clear: pressure them and the injunction might be dropped.

Joanie Berde lives in the small village of Llano, a battered collection of old adobes perched above the Rio Santa Barbara near the Picuris Pueblo. Here Berde runs Carson Forest Watch, an environmental group that monitors Forest Service activities in northern New Mexico. She was a plaintiff in the spotted owl suit that led to Judge Muecke’s injunction. But Berde’s not just an environmentalist. She’s worked hard to form alliances with rural Hispanics, often sacrificing a more aggressive environmental posture to maintain a bridge of trust in her community. Those ties were severely tested when Berde became a prime target of the Forest Service’s campaign of misinformation and intimidation.

“I was worried about Joanie,” confessed Sam Hitt. “Llano is an isolated community in an area where shootings are not uncommon. I truly feared that the rantings of Lucero and Schiff might motivate someone to harm her or to torch her house.”

Berde says she fielded numerous harassing phone calls and was told by her neighbors to be cautious, that resentment against her was spreading. After some initial apprehensions about her personal safety, however, a more profound concern began to emerge: that the firewood debacle might ignite a backlash against environmental protection in the region. “Shutting down the firewood program turned the little guys against us,” Berde says. “They wondered why environmentalists were releasing large timber sales to big companies like Duke City, but they couldn’t get their firewood. It was a difficult contradiction to rationalize.”

What Berde wants to explain is that the Carson’s fuelwood program simply isn’t sustainable. It’s a problem the Forest Service has been aware of since at least 1977, when the Peñasco District of the Carson estimated that firewood was being logged off at more than seven times the sustainable rate. Even so, the Forest Service took no action. In fact, the Carson remains the only national forest with an unregulated personal fuelwood program. For decades, local residents have been able to cut as much firewood as they want, wherever they want.

Of course, people from the villages of Northern New Mexico have been gathering firewood for centuries. Then, as now, piñon was the preferred species. It was plentiful, dried quickly, and burned slowly. Generations of firewood-cutting on the old ejidos (communal lands) had caused minimal ecological damage. But the advent of the chainsaw and pickup truck changed the cutting patterns, opening up the mid-elevation ponderosa stands and the high spruce/fire forests, and making commercial exploitation possible.

But the current bleak situation also owes a lot to Forest Service social engineering efforts, beginning in the 1950s and 1960s, to turn rural Hispanics from graziers into loggers. The Forest Service’s motives were not entirely benign in this matter. Agency leaders believed that if they could entice Hispanics into relinquishing their sheep herds, there would be less reason to press the old land claims against the Forest Service. That’s why the agency created the Vallecitos Sustained-Yield Unit, a disastrous experiment on the Carson that promised a steady flow of timber to a locally-owned sawmill. But the Duke City mill ended up in the hands of a British corporation, Hanson PLC, which opened and closed it according to the inscrutable rhythms of distant economic forces.

The Forest Service set up small commercial firewood operations in Hispanic communities. “The wood co-ops prospered for a time,” writes William deBuys in Enchantment and Exploitation, his extraordinary history of the Sangre de Cristo region. “But most developed serious management problems and ceased operating by the early 70s…and the indiscriminate cutting continued.”

By the mid-70s, then, the Forest Service knew it should have acted decisively to restrict firewood cutting. Instead, it backed off, taking a blindly laissez-faire approach. As a result, the volume of fuelwood cut from the Carson has nearly doubled since 1976. For the past three years, the Carson has given away about 30 million board feet of fuelwood a year—that’s about three times the size of its commercial timber sale program. But as the cut increased, the number of permits declined. Much of the firewood is being resold in Taos, Santa Fe, and Albuquerque, where burgeoning development has created a lucrative black market in federal fuelwood.

Rampant firewood cutting has shorn gaping ecological holes in the Carson, now a nearly snagless forest. There is little downed woody debris left, especially in riparian areas where it is important for trout and other aquatic species. And, yes, the Mexican spotted owl is threatened by further firewood logging. So are other species that depend on standing dead trees, particularly cavity-nesting songbirds.

But the crisis is not just ecological, it’s also cultural. Subsistence fuelwood gathering by rural Hispanics in northern New Mexico is threatened, but not by spotted owls or environmentalists. The problem resides with the Forest Service, which betrayed its commitment to both the environment and rural communities by siding with affluent commercial interests. When its mismanagement of the public’s forests was exposed by a federal judge, the first reflex of the Forest Service was to shift the blame to environmentalists, to smear them in an shameful campaign of harassment and intimidation. This is the Forest Service as Bill Clinton and Jack Ward Thomas redesigned it, not James Watt.

But Joanie Berde remains confident the tactic will eventually backfire on the agency. “Ultimately, people will realize that the Forest Service has lied to them once again,” Berde said. “It’s our challenge, as environmentalists, to demonstrate that the future of rural communities in northern New Mexico is tied to the health of our forests.”

To be continued…

JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon. His newest book, Born Under a Bad Sky, is published by AK Press / CounterPunch books. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net.

(This article is excerpted from Green Scare: the New War on Environmentalism by JEFFREY ST. CLAIR and Joshua Frank, forthcoming from Haymarket Books.)




Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His most recent book is An Orgy of Thieves: Neoliberalism and Its Discontents (with Alexander Cockburn). He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter @JeffreyStClair3