Firewood Issue Fuels Battle in New Mexico Mountains : Forests: Villagers say suit limiting access to key heating source puts wildlife protection ahead of human needs.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

For nearly three centuries, the inhabitants of isolated mountain villages in northern New Mexico have heated their homes and cooked their meals with firewood collected from the surrounding forests.

Wood was abundant and, until this year, free for the taking. But now a lawsuit to protect the Mexican spotted owl, a bird that residents say they've never seen, has prompted the U.S. Forest Service to put much of the woods off limits.

Cut off from their traditional winter heat source, people are wondering how they will stay warm as temperatures in the mountains turn frigid. An emergency appeal has gone out on behalf of 98 mostly elderly families who may not have enough wood to last through Christmas. Earlier this week, people here awoke to the first snowfall of the season.

Meanwhile, their plight is aggravating longstanding tensions between mostly white environmentalists in Santa Fe and Albuquerque and inhabitants of remote villages who trace their ancestry to the original Spanish settlers. The controversy has heated up the rhetoric heard across the West these days that the environmental movement is insensitive to the welfare of people.

"These guys don't give a damn about human needs," said Richard Rosenstock, a lawyer representing La Compania Ocho, a locally owned logging operation in tiny Vallecitos whose access to timber has been restricted by the lawsuit.

In Santa Fe, the historic state capital where tensions between the old and the new run high anyway, 250 demonstrators recently conducted a mock hanging of two local environmental activists who joined in the suit to protect the owl.

Crying foul, the environmentalists insist that the Forest Service itself created the crisis by overreacting--perhaps intentionally--to a lawsuit that did not target firewood.

"This whole thing has been manipulated by the Forest Service," said Sam Hitt of Forest Guardians, one of the groups that filed the suit. "There's plenty of wood out there suitable for firewood that the Forest Service could make available if they didn't want to scapegoat us."

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But that argument has not prevented some local environmentalists from disassociating themselves from the forest activists. Roberto Mondragon, who ran as the New Mexico Green Party's candidate for governor last year, was among the throng that gathered for the mock hanging last week.

"I was troubled," said Mondragon, "because the environmentalists went ahead with their legal strategy without ever asking for input from the people who would be most affected--the people of Truchas, Cordova and the other villages."

Now, environmentalists are facing the kind of backlash that could do serious damage to their cause in this part of the country, if not elsewhere.

"Racial tension has grown enormously as a result of this," said Maria Varela, the founder of a wool-growing cooperative in Los Ojos who has friends on both sides of the environmental divide in northern New Mexico.

"Many Hispanics see this as yet another unwarranted intrusion on their ancestral lands," Varela said. "They see it as a form of recolonization."

The tension dates back to the early 1900s when lands, originally part of Spanish and Mexican land grants, were incorporated into the Carson National Forest, which covers 1.5 million acres and encompasses more than 30 small towns. With national forest designation came permits and quotas governing livestock grazing and logging that had gone unregulated since the first Spanish settlers took up residence in the 1700s.

In recent years, environmental groups, expanding with the tide of urban exiles from the east and west coasts, have pushed for tighter controls on national forest land to counteract the effects of excessive grazing and logging.

In August, a coalition of environmental groups in Arizona and New Mexico won a federal court injunction forcing the Forest Service to adopt stricter policies to protect the woodland habitat of the Mexican spotted owl.

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The ruling was especially irksome to residents of northern New Mexico because the Forest Service had spent $1.5 million searching for owls in the Carson Forest and could not find any within 100 miles of Truchas. The only owls found were in a distant section of the forest near the Colorado border.

Nonetheless, in a settlement reached with the environmental groups, Forest Service officials put new restrictions on commercial logging. They also imposed limits on a centuries-old practice of "free-roaming" firewood collection in the Carson Forest by local residents.

This region's land and people have occupied a special place in the American imagination. The area was a bohemian oasis for novelist D.H. Lawrence in the 1920s. Painter Georgia O'Keeffe lived just outside the Carson Forest and drew inspiration from its pinon-studded canyons.

Communes sprouted in the Truchas high country, located between Santa Fe and Taos, in the 1960s. John Nichols' novel-turned-movie, "The Milagro Beanfield War," celebrated the determination of local villagers to preserve their land and customs from predatory real estate developers.

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Truchas and surrounding communities are no longer the mountain redoubts they once were. A smattering of galleries and bed-and-breakfasts welcome tourists. Urban expatriates are buying and renovating decrepit adobe farmhouses. Commuter vans transport local residents 25 miles to sophisticated jobs at Los Alamos National Laboratory.

But the majority of people survive on less than $15,000 a year, according to Max Cordova, who runs a small economic development project here. Most of the mountain villages still lack natural gas, and dirt floors and outhouses are not unheard of.

Nearly 5,000 families request permits to collect firewood in the national forest each year. A few of them still bring it home in horse-drawn wagons.

"In many ways we are the same people our ancestors were," said Cordova, who claims his forebears made their way into the region with the 16th-Century explorer Juan de Onate. "We're still fighting for control of this land."

Yet there was a time when longtime residents and the new, mostly white activists supported one another's efforts.

Antonio DeVargas, who organized last week's demonstration and mock hanging, once led a campaign to scale back logging by a foreign-owned timber corporation that local people feared would denude the forests and leave local communities without a timber supply.

But when the litigation over the owl threatened to put his home-grown logging operation, La Compania Ocho, out of business, said DeVargas, it was time to part company with the environmentalists.

"It turns out they are no different from anyone else who has come in here," he said. "They just want to take control over our destiny."

For environmentalists like Sam Hitt, the hostile reaction by people he had known for 20 years came as a blow.

"It was really shocking. . . . These were friends of mine, people I've worked with," he said.

Hitt got his start as a social activist here in the 1970s, helping rural poor people tap into federal subsidies for solar heating and other energy-saving methods of winterizing homes. Hitt said those efforts reduced the heavy dependence on firewood which, in some parts of the Carson Forest, was being cut at seven times the rate of forest regeneration.

But the Reagan Administration stopped the energy assistance program, he said, while continuing to subsidize the operations of private timber companies in national forests, a practice that continues today.

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At the same time, the Carson Forest was subject to new stresses as the explosive growth of Santa Fe and Taos increased the local demand for timber.

By the early 1990s, said Hitt, harvesting of the biggest trees in the forest had created "a huge gap" in the traditional range of the spotted owl and imperiled about 40 species of songbirds.

The lawsuit was necessary, he said, not only to compel the Forest Service to save the last of the big, high-elevation ponderosa pines but also to keep firewood collectors away from dead "snags" and downed timber that provide nests for owls and their prey.

Even with those restrictions, however, Hitt maintains that the forests are overstocked with young, green trees that the Forest Service could make available for firewood.

In Truchas and other villages in the Carson Forest, it takes about nine cords of wood to heat a home during the six months of cold weather.

Piled up, nine cords looks like a small mountain of wood. You can see such piles behind many homes, though just next door a neighbor's back-yard supply may be pitifully small.

The Cordova home of Jeremias and Celaida Romero is an example. Romero once worked in the forest. But he is in his 80s now and is no longer able to get his own wood, let alone drive the 30 miles to the nearest designated collection area.

And when one of Romero's sons sought a permit to get wood for his parents, he was told by the Forest Service that there were no more permits available, said Celaida Romero.

"So now what?" the woman asked. "Do I tell my son to go out and steal the wood? Must we become thieves just to survive?"

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