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Local trail politics: the biggest challenges

Northern New Mexico throws up political roadblock to the Continental Divide Trail

By Mark Oswald, The New Mexican
reprinted with permission

"It's the rich against the poor they're just promoting their products."

This article presents a vivid picture of the complex politics that trail activists often need to navigate. It also challenges us to consider the impacts of trails on traditional lifestyles, Native American lands, and the heritage of Hispanics and other ethnic groups.

It might seem like a fairly simple idea - develop a hiking trail the length of the Continental Divide in the United States, from New Mexico's arid bootheel to Glacier National Park on the Canadian border in Montana.

After all, a hiking trail a couple of feet wide isn't a four-lane superhighway. But the Continental Divide Trail was designated by Congress in 1978, and it's still far from complete-particularly where the 3,100 mile divide crosses New Mexico.

In fact, in Northern New Mexico the Continental Divide Trail has become something of a political hot potato.

Preserving trees along potential routes for the trail is part of the controversy over a proposed national forest timber sale north of Ojo Caliente. And some residents oppose the trail as yet another attraction for unwanted outsiders considered a threat to Hispanic New Mexico's traditional way of life,

"It took decades to develop the Appalachian Trail," says Bruce Ward of the Colorado-based Continental Divide Trail Alliance, a non-profit group dedicated to development of the Trail, "You've got to take the long view. Maybe in 100 years, we'll have a back country trail the length of the Continental Divide."

Bob Julyan of Albuquerque, an avid hiker and outdoor writer who has followed the Trail's progress, said New Mexico is the "weak link" in the Trail, which also crosses Colorado, Wyoming, Idaho and Montana. "The other states are much farther along," Julyan said.

In New Mexico, the Continental Divide crosses the Chihuahuan desert, desolate badlands, mountains forests and alpine peaks, The Trail also manages to touch on some of New Mexico's most difficult political and cultural issues, including:

  • Native American sovereignty. A large part of the most direct route for the Trail in Northern New Mexico would cross Jicarilla Apache land. According to the National Forest Service, the Jicarillas years ago denied use of their land for the Trail. The divide also crosses the small Ramah Navajo reservation southwest of Grants.
  • Catron County's anti-federal sentiment. The divide zigzags through much of Catron County, where outspoken advocates of private property rights and opposition to federal control of public lands make development of a public, federally designated trail a sensitive proposition.

Perhaps the most volatile issue facing the Trail in New Mexico is the concern of traditional Hispanic villagers, their advocates and loggers in and around the Carson National Forest.

"Everybody is worried about their way of life being interrupted. It's an emotional issue," said Bill Westbury of the Forest Service post in Canjilon between Abiquiu and Tierra Amarilla.

Moises Morales, a longtime activist who is the unopposed Democratic nominee for a slot on the Tio Arriba County Commission, is among those against the Trail. He compared the Trail plans with efforts by environmentalists to restrict wood-gathering or logging in national forests long used by Hispanic villagers or timber companies.

"It's another example of people not even from our part of the country wanting to come into our community and destroy our privacy," said Morales, who has an auto repair shop in Tierra Amarilla. He said backers want to "destroy more of the forest so these guys can come and play" and that area residents will fight this to the end.

"It's the rich against the poor," Morales said, noting that REI, Inc., an outdoor gear company, is a backer of the trail plan. "They're just promoting their products."

Ward, of the Trail Alliance, contended that the trail is not "a malevolent movement that's going to push people off the land or prevent anyone from doing what they've always done with the land." The Trail, he says, would be developed through 'a cooperative, collaborative means."

Ward said that under federal law, development of the Trail can't bar existing uses such as ranching or use of motorized vehicles on mountain roads that may end up as parts of the Trail.

"We are very much looking forward to engaging local communities-Native American or Hispanics or anyone who's been there for quite some time," Ward said.

The Trail also has emerged as an issue in the controversial La Manga timber sale, which has been tied up in court since 1994 because of opposition by environmentalists.

Proposed routes for the Trail-there are several options under consideration-go through the La Manga sale area in the Carson National Forest. The Forest Service is reducing the amount of timer that can be cut to protect Trail routes.

"We'll probably want to keep at least the larger diameter trees along the Trail routes," said Kurt Winchester, the Forest Service district ranger at El Rito. "It's the same sort of thing we would do for wildlife corridors."

Morales said that if there must be a designated Trail, hikers could use existing roads. And he said, the Continental Divide Trail shouldn't even be crossing forest land near such Rio Arriba county communities such as Tierra Amarilla, Cebolla, Canjilon, and Vallecitos, because the actual divide is 20 to 40 miles east-in large part on the Jicarilla reservation. "We're supposed to be sovereign, too," Morales said of non-Indian residents of the area.

Although the Forest Service said the Jicarilla rejected use of its land for the Trail, tribal President Leonard Atole said he wasn't familiar with the Trail plan or aware of a formal tribal position against it. He said the tribe has allowed individual hikers who asked permission to cross Jicarilla land.

Ward said Trail supporters' "long-term goal is to develop the Trail as the opportunity presents itself."

"Maybe a rancher has a change of heart, or a utility or railway has a change of heart, and decides to grant an easement or allow use of their land for the Trail," he said. "We want to be there and be ready to take advantage of that."

The Forest Service's Westbury said that in Northern New Mexico, "We're basically in the beginning process of developing a definitive route for the Trail. We're talking to some of the people who are vocally against it."

Westbury also said environmental impact studies of the Trail in the Carson National Forest have yet to be done. "We may run into owls or some species that negates the whole thing," Westbury said.

The Trail's development is farther along in the Gila National Forest in southwest New Mexico. Jerry Payne, Gila's trail coordinator, said the national forest has about 140 miles of the Trail designated, much of it along back country roads. Twelve students from Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas spent their spring break this year helping to build part of the Trail in the Black Range mountains in the eastern Gila.

The U.S. Bureau of Land Management is also involved. On a recent weekend, BLM/CDTA volunteers from Albuquerque put up signs marking the Trail on BLM land in an area near El Malpais National Monument south of Grants.

There are other issues to be dealt with, many of them having nothing to do with landowners, easement or cultural sensitivity. Trail supporters themselves are not always of one mind. Westbury said that at the CDTA New Mexico State Summit in March, some wanted a basic 24-inch paved trail for hikers; guides and others wanted the Trail to be suitable for horses; some said at least parts of the Trail should be accessible to the physically challenged; and others wanted just a few trees marked-with no developed trail-to guide the way.

Ward, who is based in Pine, Colorado, said that for the moment the group's goals are to get the word out about plans for the Trail, motivate volunteers and to be there with organizational know-how when opportunities arise from development of new stretches of the Trail.

"To a lot of people, the idea of long distance walking through a state like New Mexico seems crazy," Julyan said. "But look at the growth of the outdoor recreation industry. I'm certain when people started talking about the Appalachian Trail people thought it too was insane."

This article appeared in the Continental Divide Trail News. For more information about the Trail and its supporters, contact Bruce or Paula Ward at the CDT Alliance, P O Box 628, Pine CO 80470. Phone 303/838-3760; Fax 303/275-5058

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