New Mexico’s best known export, the green chile, is being threatened by the “greens.” It is not just the green chile habitat that is in danger, it is also the cultures and customs of generations of New Mexicans—farmers and ranchers.
The famous chiles are grown exclusively in Hatch, NM. People come from far and wide to buy bushels of fresh green chiles, have them roasted, and take them home to freeze for use throughout the year. In New Mexico, McDonald's even serves a green chile cheeseburger.
This past week, a vote was cast that could signal the end of a multi-generational battle to save the land.
The original fight started in the 1940s with the first of the modern land grabs. Hundreds of ranch families were evicted from the Tularosa Basin—an area that had been home to the Butterfield Trail and many Hollywood Westerns including the John Wayne classic Stage Coach. The families got there first and were “notoriously hard to uproot.” In the name of national defense, the seized land became Fort Bliss, McGregor Range, White Sands Missile Range, Holloman Air Force Base, San Andres National Wildlife Refuge, the Jornada Range, and the New Mexico State University Ranch. All of this adds up to 4.7 million acres that are generally off limits to the very people who pay the bills—the taxpayer.
In 1948, another wave of evictions impacted an additional 40 families. Again, they tried to halt the federal onslaught. At a public meeting, the feds reminded folks that this was for the “public good. The ranchers had to go.” Unprepared for the scope of the battle, these hard-working people were evicted and Washington took their land.
These siezed lands are in New Mexico’s Doña Ana Country—home to the iconic Organ Mountains. Before the turn of the 21st century, Congressman Joe Skeen attempted to designate the mountains as a National Conservation Area (NCA) which would have included existing Wilderness Study Areas (WSA) and the Areas of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) on the Organs to form a 58,012 acre unit—but the plan didn’t get traction. The greens wanted more.
The WSAs existed as a result of the Federal Lands Policy Management Act (FLPMA) signed into law in 1976. FLPMA required that the Bureau of Land Management embark on a study to define lands that had wilderness characteristics. Additionally, FLPMA made several promises to the western states as a part of the management agreement. One of the most significant was “coordination”—which meant that local governments would be in on the initial discussions and kept in the loop on federal land planning measures that affected their community. What has happened, however, is that environmental groups with agendas have commandeered the spot promised to local government. Instead of being part of the concept, steering and planning, the locals only find out when a plan is introduced in the press—and, by then it is already a plan to be fought, not an idea to be discussed. Those with duties, responsibilities and/or investments on the lands were not included in the process. The only way the locals get an alert is to diligently follow the Federal Register—which they do not have the staff or time to do with seven-day-a-week farm and ranch responsibilities.
The 58,012-acre unit proposed by Congressman Skeen grew to 217,500 acres, when the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance approached Senator Domenici to designate the area as “wilderness.” The story at the time was that the local community was on board—which he quickly learned was false. Domenici pushed back.
When Senator Domenici announced retirement in 2009, Senator Bingaman became New Mexico’s senior senator. Once again the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance got involved. This time, they partnered with the Senator when they delivered their plan: S.1689—now 259,000 acres with designated wilderness and NCA buffers. The word in the press was that everyone was really on board this time. The Democrats were in control of virtually every level of government involved from the local county, to the state governor, on up to the House, the Senate and the President. It appeared that their dream was about to come true.
But, by now, the locals were engaged. They had learned from the Tularosa Basin evictions—just being there first didn’t matter, and impassioned pleas for the continuation on their lands didn’t work. But as they found, objective rationale of what the community faced with the passage of the bill did work. For example, the proximity to the Mexican border became a huge issue. The border ranching community knew the harsh reality of life without protection. They knew that the eastern half of the New Mexico bootheel was without electronic monitoring; the BLM had forced the Border Patrol to remove an important transmitter from Big Hatchet Mountain because it was affecting the mating of the big horn sheep. Rancher Rob Krentz, whose ranch spans the Arizona-New Mexico border, was killed on his own ranch. Mexican rancher Alejandro Garza was killed when he took a stand against the Zeta gunman who crossed his property. And later, Border Patrol agent Brian Terry was killed—long before the DOJ got involved. The lands were dangerous and filled with trash, stashes and drug mules.
Without help from government officials such as the Department of Homeland Security, these local citizens embarked on a study of what made the area so attractive to the smugglers. They found that the smuggling corridors had six common elements:
1. They have East/West highway access north and south of the corridors
2. They have rugged and complex North/South mountain and drainage orientation which provides channels of movement.
3. They are almost entirely, or heavily dominated by, federal agency land management.
4. The concentration of American private property rights at risk is limited, as is the presence of resident American habitation. (Americans at risk will defend their investments; federal agents are not so motivated.)
5. All corridors have high, strategically placed points of observation.
6. Each and every one has designated wilderness or de facto wilderness safe havens where the Border Patrol has only conditional entry due to the restriction of motorized patrols and the bad guys have full and unencumbered access without observation.
These local citizens also found that the watersheds would be impacted with a wilderness designation. Armed with this information, S.1689 was successfully beaten back, and died at the end of 2010. The local citizens had a few moments to catch their breath before the next onslaught—which came in the form of S.1024. This time the land grab was even bigger: nearly 400,000 acres! The local communities found out about it from the front page of the newspaper. No coordination with the local conservation district was even hinted at. They brought the fight to a new level and exposed a problem with farmland attrition in the Rio Grande Valley. A map of Doña Ana County, New Mexico, shows that private lands exist only in very narrow strips along the river channel. Without allowance to grow into federal lands, development had to impact farmland. In essence, the federal government, using taxpayer money against the taxpayers, has underwritten the disappearance of farmland throughout the West—removing land from economic production and preventing contribution to the tax base/encouraging more national debt.
Bingaman’s legacy bill, S.1024, was in trouble. Republican Congressman Steve Pearce, who represents the district and didn’t support the bill, was not about to let it through the, now, Republican-controlled House of Representatives. Perhaps this ever-increasing federal land grab would finally go away!
Then on March 9, 2012, the BLM office was alerted to a new plan. They were not part of the process, nor was the Doña Ana Soil and Water Conservation District and neither were the local citizens with duties, responsibilities and investments on the lands. Headlines heralded a 600,000-acre National Monument—which can be put into place with the stroke of an executive order pen—authorized by the Antiquities Act of 1906. The proposal intends to eclipse the epic six-year battle between undefended Americans and their government.
This new proposal will disallow the full and unencumbered access by the common taxpayer to yet more lands—86% of the landscape of Doña Ana County. Implicit in that is a private ownership base of just 5% of the land. It would also triple the national monument lands in New Mexico. Additionally, some of the other impacts include:
· Land lock between 60-75 private land parcels.
· Land lock 80+ sections of State Trust lands dedicated solely to school revenues.
· Land lock the domestic water system to the village of Hatch.
· Force Hatch to grow into farmland, the very land that has created the world famous Hatch green chiles.
· Impede storm-water and watershed management systems.
· Overlay 38 of the county’s 64 ranches or 70% of the county’s cattle.
· Close other important economic centers.
· Disallow mining, fluid extraction, and disposal.
· And, on and on…
On Monday, July 16, the Las Cruces City Council approved a resolution in support of the national monument proposal.
Senatorial candidate and former Congressman, Heather Wilson, opposes the action because “it would compromise border security and hurt the economy.”
Steve Wilmeth, a local rancher whose family has ranched in the area for 132 years, says the proposal will impact him directly. “Our private property is involved. Our future in terms of our ability to continue to ranch is in jeopardy and a great deal of custom and culture, as well as the value of history is in involved,”
The City Council has no jurisdiction over the county lands, and the resolution is non-binding. Yet, the ranchers' history of coming up against the federal (and now the local) government has come to no good end.
Why would someone, such as Senator Bingaman, come back time and time again, with ever-larger efforts to close off federal lands and private property? Are the people of New Mexico clamoring for more national monuments? Or do they want jobs, economic development, and freedom?
Perhaps the truth lies in the smuggling corridors: Bingaman’s illegal immigration super-highway.
With a president with a proclivity for executive orders, what can be done to save the green chiles and the cultures and customs of generations of New Mexican farmers and ranchers while securing the borders?