Natural Resources Journal

2008 New Mexico's Land Grants & the Law Symposium
Land Grants and the Forest Service

Rocky Mountain Research Station


Carol Raish and Alice M. McSweeney, U.S. Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Research Station Introduction


  • The United States Forest Service (FS) has a long, shared history with the land grants of northern New Mexico.
  • Much land included within the northern New Mexico National Forests is derived from common lands of Spanish and Mexican land grants.
  • During land grant adjudication after U.S. conquest, many common lands were declared public domain, and eventually became part of the National Forests.
  • Other lands went into private ownership and were later sold to the government.

Coyote Ranger District

Theoretical Framework and Historical Background

  • Hispanic land grant and resource loss during the process of United States conquest and occupation shows similarities to land loss among other traditional and indigenous peoples.
  • Culture-based internal colonialism, political dominance and economic exploitation of a subordinate culture by a dominant one, is relevant for understanding land loss after U.S. conquest and during the Territorial Period (1848-1912).
  • During the Spanish and Mexican Periods land ownership and use were confirmed by land grants from the Spanish Crown or Mexican government.
  • Community grants, used by a group of settlers in common, are of particular interest because they are a primary land ownership issue in the region.
  • Within community grants, settlers received individually owned building sites and plots of irrigated agricultural land. The villagers used grazing, timber, and pasture lands in common.

U.S. conquest during the Mexican-American War of 1846-1848 changed patterns of land use and ownership.

  • Under the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, the U.S. was supposed to recognize and respect the property rights of former Mexican citizens.
  • In many cases the U.S. government did not honor the intent of the Treaty and related documents.
  • The government adopted a legalistic, restrictive stance toward land claims in the Territory.
  • Although some fraudulent claims were rejected, many legitimate claims were also rejected.
  • Claims from families who had resided on their land for generations were denied because of lost, incomplete, or inconsistent documents.

Loss of Common Lands

  • Often, the court confirmed house lands and irrigated plots but did not confirm community pastures and woodlands, which provided the Hispano villagers with their main grazing and fuel wood resources.

“This was our land, lost for taxes.”

  • Villagers lost confirmed land because they were unable to pay property taxes under the American system of monetary tax payments, which differed from payment in animal products and farm produce.
  • Unscrupulous land speculation, which was often upheld by the courts, also resulted in land loss by Hispano farmers.
  • Thus, the American system of land grant adjudication and property taxation ultimately served to facilitate and legitimize the loss of substantial amounts of land owned and used by the resident population, opening areas for colonization by Anglo-Americans and non-local commercial enterprises.

Processes of Indigenous Land Loss

  • Land loss under colonization has occurred throughout the world. Use of the dominant legal system as a land appropriation tool is common.
  • Spanish colonizers of the Valle del Mexquital in Mexico, conquered, dominated, and acquired resources not only by force but also by means of the court system.
  • Spanish resource acquisitions in the New World were regulated by law and custom, but the process was not always straight forward.
  • The New World context altered application of the law, and opened loopholes for opportunists.
  • Successful use of the law required a knowledge base that the indigenous people(s) did not have, which put them in a disadvantageous situation.
  • A similar process occurred in Ireland under British domination. The Penal Laws, which discriminated against indigenous Roman Catholics, were passed in the early 1700s ostensibly to encourage conversion to the state Church.
  • However, the intended effect was to dispossess the Catholic population of their lands. In 1641, Catholics owned 60% of land in Ireland; by 1776, only 5%. These losses, resulting from the 800 years of British domination in Ireland, remain a problem to the present day.

The Forest Service and the Land

  • In northern New Mexico today, land grant loss remains an issue of bitter controversy.
  • Much former grant land in the area is managed by federal agencies, primarily the U.S. Forest Service.
  • These consist of unconfirmed common lands that became public domain as well as confirmed grant lands that were lost for a variety of reasons.
  • Often “lost” lands were purchased by non-local interests for large commercial timbering and ranching operations. When these were no longer profitable, the often degraded land was sold to the government. The government proved to be the biggest beneficiary of decisions reached by the federal judiciary.
  • Because of these government purchases, northern New Mexico National Forests eventually included considerable amounts of former grant lands that had been used as community range and woodland by local villages.

Many local permittees are land grant heirs who resent government restrictions on land they consider part of their heritage.

  • The Agency has introduced changes in range management that many permittees consider harsh and poorly explained.
  • The evolving economy of the region, from subsistence-based farming and ranching to wage work in surrounding towns, has also had a strong effect on local ranching operations.

Changing Times

  • Free-use permits for milk cows and draft horses were phased out, goats were restricted, and there was a reduction in sheep permits.
  • Many ranchers switched from raising sheep to cattle due to Agency direction and changing employment circumstances.
  • Cattle require less intensive herding and care than sheep. Thus, they are easier to manage for people with full-time, off-ranch jobs.

Land Loss Protest

  • Land loss protest has occurred in the region virtually since conquest in the mid-1800s. Discontent over federal grazing policies, loss of land grant lands, and general economic decline led to an upsurge of protest in the 1960s.
  • The violence of the Alianza protests triggered re-examination of Forest Service policies in northern New Mexico, both within the agency and within the U. S. Department of Agriculture.

The Northern New Mexico Policy and the Hassell Report

  • The Forest Service produced the Hassell Report (1968), which recommended 99 measures, 26 of which related to grazing, to improve the situation of the Hispanic villagers.
  • The Northern New Mexico Policy (1972) stressed the importance of valuing the Hispanic and Indian cultures of the Southwest and recommended that efforts of the Forest Service be directed toward their preservation. It also stated that the attitudes of Forest Service employees “should be attuned to the land and its people and to their unique values.”
  • There were difficulties with implementing recommendations of the Policy, and many situations discussed in the Hassell Report have not been improved.
  • Poverty, disappearing traditional life-ways, and environmental problems are still concerns.
  • Although there are recent efforts to develop regional cultural awareness programs and hire managerial-level employees from the area, a need remains for training in the cultural traditions and social values of northern New Mexico.

Contemporary Land Loss Issues

  • Land and water are not only part of the physical landscape but also part of the cultural landscape.
  • Loss of access to these resources threatens the livelihood of many Hispanics and also attacks the social fabric of rural Hispanic communities.
  • As pressures for "change on the range" have mounted, ranch after ranch has sold, often to luxury developments.
  • A new population moves in, and taxes increase in response to increasing land values.
  • Purchase of additional land for agricultural purposes becomes prohibitive, discouraging the younger generation.
  • Many new residents resent the ranching way of life as a once rural countryside becomes more urbanized.

Dealing with Land Loss Issues…

Significance of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo

  • The Northern New Mexico Stockmen’s Association commissioned Michael Meyer to prepare a report in 1998 on the significance of the Treaty. It recommends that the time is right to reconsider the property guarantees of the Treaty in light of the loss of community lands. It suggests a town by town study of New Mexico’s common lands with parameters set by a Hispanic Land Claims Commission.

The General Accounting Office (GAO) Report, June 2004

  • In brief, the Report states that “there does not appear to be a specific legal basis for relief because the Treaty was implemented in compliance with all applicable U.S. legal requirements.”
  • Land grant heirs and activists were not pleased with the findings of the Report. Comments ranged from “a whitewash” to “a slap in the face.”
  • In response to the 2004 GAO Report, the NM Land Grant Forum, the Mexicano Land Education and Conservation Trust, and officials of various Land Grants proposed that Congress establish a 2.7 billion dollar trust fund to compensate land grants for loss of lands and resulting economic hardships.
  • Interest from the trust would be used by land grants for land recovery, community and economic development, and educational and cultural programming.
  • The New Mexico Land Grant Council has expanded the proposal to contain sections on land restitution and on adjudications and recognitions.

Views of the Permittees

Property rights were not honored…

  • We asked permittee ranchers, many of whom are land grant heirs, about their views on the implementation of the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo.
  • Responses ranged from land grant activism to the opinion that the past should be “left in the past.”
  • They say loss of grant land affected the ability of their ancestors to support themselves as ranchers and farmers, an impact that continues to the present day
  • To some, the land grant issue was a remote idea, too distant in the framework of time or in relevance to present day life.
  • To others, the Treaty and resulting land loss are pertinent topics impressed upon them by fathers and grandfathers. One grandson said his feelings are hard to describe except as a “silent rage.”
  • “We still believe that we have rights through the Treaty.”
  • They “throw bones to divide and conquer, to control the people.” He refers to the permits as “the crumbs” that have been given to them.
  • The people here did not have an understanding of the system nor the economic means to avoid exploitation. They lacked information on U.S. law.”
  • It would be good “if the mess got straightened out, but it would need a strong board of directors to manage it.”
  • We feel we were placed in a position of semi poverty.”

How the Permittees Describe Circumstances Leading to Loss of Lands:

A Summary of Their Responses

  • A language barrier, notices in a foreign language (English) and letters that reached them too late.
  • Taxes that couldn’t be paid in a produce-based economy.
  • Unscrupulous dealings by lawyers and politicians of the Santa Fe Ring.
  • Many stated that these grants ended up as US Forest Service (some BLM) lands or, to a lesser degree, were transferred to various pueblos.
  • Most frequently, the answers centered on a simple theme that the US government took the land.

“Grant lands should be in the ownership of the original families.”

  • Many permittees told us of the importance of studying land grant issues to help maintain their connection with the land. They feel that there may not be an equitable resolution of land grant questions, but they still wish that the government would acknowledge the injustices of the past.
  • Much of the northern National Forests are emotionally and psychologically vital to the lives of the people.

Land Grants and the Forest Service: Contemporary Views and Actions

  • To understand the policy of the Forest Service toward land grants, we consulted SW Region lands staff and others from the Santa Fe and Carson National Forests, recommended for their knowledge of land grant issues.
  • We sought to examine both “official” policy and personal views of Agency employees.
  • Several with whom we spoke are from different parts of the country while some are from the local area, two from land grants.

The Forest Service Position

  • The Agency has a mandate to defend US title to FS lands, and to manage them to the best of its ability, according to FS staff we interviewed at the Regional Office.
  • Forest Service resources are not to be used to undermine U.S. title.
  • The Southwestern Region views the GAO Report favorably, feeling that it confirms that land adjudications were accomplished properly.

The Forest Service Position on the GAO Report

  • The position of the Forest Service is to support the conclusions of the 2004 GAO Report.
  • From the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Forest Service Briefing Paper on the GAO Report (GAO-04-59), June 2004: “The Region’s view on the recently issued Report is that it is a highly credible independent source confirming the legal foundation of the subject National Forests; and, therefore the USDA Forest Service as the agency with jurisdiction and proper authority as stewards for administering these National Forest lands.”
    • The Report identifies possible options that Congress may wish to take. These include:

(1) No action
(2) Acknowledgement of hardships imposed,
(3) Re-examination of claims,
(4) Transfer of lands, or
(5) Financial payments.

  • Land grant members interviewed by the GAO preferred the last two options if Congress were to take any action on the Report.
  • The Forest Service Briefing Paper on the GAO Report states:
  • “It would appear that monetary compensation would probably have the least impact to other private parties…(and) the public use and management of National Forests, including several Congressionally delegated Wilderness Areas and Wild and Scenic Rivers.”
  • “Clearly, until and unless statute eventually directs otherwise, the U.S. title and interest in National Forest Land remains a responsibility for the Forest Service to protect and manage for the Nation. Options that would involve transfer of federal lands would only tend to continue to promote the belief that lands were unduly lost by land grant communities at the behest of the federal government, and it is difficult to see that there would be a reasonable and agreeable process to provide an equitable solution to address all perceptions of inequity by land grant heirs. Options that would transfer federal lands would also put at risk the title and interest of the U.S. beyond those lands at issue in the GAO report, in addition to having a debilitating impact to effective and efficient management of remaining National Forest Lands.”

NM Interim Land Grant Committee Recommendations to the Forest Service

  • (1) Noting the sometimes rocky relationship between land grants and the FS, a Representative encouraged the FS to follow the State’s lead in recognizing the historical value and the cultural and economic viability of these land grant communities.
  • (2) FS was encouraged to establish a land grant liaison position to help facilitate better communication between FS hierarchy and land grants
  • (3) FS should add a land grant heir to the Collaborative Forest Restoration Program (CFRP) review board, for land grants to get more informed and bring more cooperation between land grants and the FS
  • (4) FS should provide Memoranda of Understanding (MOUs) with land grants as they do with pueblos (concerning access to resources such as firewood).

Comments from R3 Forest Service Personnel:

  • The Forest Service does not provide special treatment for land grants in terms of preferential access to forest resources or CFRP grants.
  • CFRP:
    – CFRP coordinators are pleased that new state designation allows land grants to apply directly for these grants.
    – They believe they provide a robust program of outreach, coaching, and training for proposal preparation for all interested parties.
    – One coordinator says he makes land grant associations aware of the training workshops in northern New Mexico (four in 2007).
    There is now a land grant representative on the CFRP panel for 2008, as requested by the NM Interim Land Grant Committee.
    – The CFRP Program Manager feels it is very important that the first land grant projects go well. He recommends oversight and vigilance to avoid problems before they arise. He sees these projects as precedent setting.

Personal Views

Several discussed that they have not worked directly with land grants, stating that it is hard to find information on contacts for the different boards.

  • Hopefully, the newly formed Interim Land Grant Committee will provide assistance with this problem.
  • It was said that the FS should establish stronger ties to land grants and make sure they know whom to contact in the Agency.
  • Perhaps the requested land grant liaison position could assist in this communication gap. At last word, the position is still under discussion in the FS Regional Office.
  • One reason for lack of communication is “fear of giving the farm away.”
  • It is described as a Forest Service mentality, which has made some Agency people hesitant to become too involved with the land grants, knowing that the grants want the land back.
  • On the other hand, another employee questions why the grants have had to pay taxes, when the pueblos do not.
  • According to this person, the King of Spain granted lands to both pueblos and land grants. When surveys turn out to be inaccurate, pueblos often have lands returned, but land grants do not. He says that the land grants have not had the support the pueblos have had.

“We must have people here who are very connected (to the land) and understand northern New Mexico needs, lifestyle, culture, and tradition.”

  • Many stressed the need for training FS employees from outside the area in the history, culture, and traditions of the local people, stating that the Forests recognize the need of northern New Mexico for traditional resources.
  • “I always share the ‘Tierra O Muerte’ video with new employees, especially line officers,” says one.
  • Another recommendation is that the Carson and Santa Fe should work more closely together and coordinate fees, etc., because they serve many of the same people.

Trust building and small accomplishments…

“We should be doing more, we could be doing more…”

  • Trust building and small accomplishments are needed between agency and land grants. The land grant people work well with individual forest people and vice versa, but will probably never be “hand-in-hand” with the Agency.
  • In sum, we heard “treat people with respect and expect respect. Work within partnerships (for) common goals…Science is not enough…(FS) must consider economic, cultural, and social considerations. People have a relationship to the land, deep historic roots.”

Keep the land sustainable for future generations…

  • Despite some disagreements, those we spoke with believe that land grant issues can only be resolved by Congress and not through the courts. However, until such time as statute and policy change, the Forest Service and its employees will follow the federal government position, defending U.S. title to land currently managed as part of the National Forest System.
  • One employee says the FS will continue to do its work until things change; keep the land sustainable and used in the proper way.

Some feel changes in Agency culture are occurring, while others do not.

  • Many local people are employed in the northern Forests and understand the concerns of friends, neighbors, and relatives.
  • They argue for promoting locals in place and for longer tenure in leadership positions to build communication and trust between communities and the Agency.
  • These employees often encourage greater participation by local communities in Forest Service decisions.
  • Our discussions with FS personnel show that effort and concern can go beyond “official” policies.
  • Shared history and problems of the past continue to the present, with equitable resolution remaining as a future goal.