Protect your public land heritage and centuries-old Latino traditions

So many of us take for granted that public land will be here forever, but that may not be the case if we do not act.
— Max Trujillo

For generations, Latino families from western states have enjoyed our shared public land, like parks, rivers, lakes and mountains. We have utilized their resources and shared in the responsibility not only of owning this land, but caring for them too.

Public land is often where we hunt and fish, where we gather our firewood, where we take our families on camping trips, where we hike, bike, and get away from civilization so we can connect to our roots and recharge our souls. So many Latino communities are near National Forests and our centuries-old tradition of sharing our water resources through networks of acequias depends on access to these National Forests and other public land where fresh water sources are managed for thousands of parciantes – water rights holders – with rights that predate the establishment of most states in the West.

In my part of the world, cities and towns with large Latino populations like Las Vegas, Mora, Taos, Truchas, Chimayo, Espanola, Santa Fe, Tierra Amarilla, Chama – the list goes on and on – depend on our national public lands for a continued and sustainable source of clean water. The natural resources that sustain so many of these communities represent an economic engine unto itself. In a recent study conducted by the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, it was found that hunters and fishermen spend $613 million per year to do what they love and generate $51 million in federal and state tax revenue. The study also showed that over 90% of these sportsmen and women hunt and fish on public land.

Our land at risk

So many of us take for granted that public land will be here forever, but that may not be the case if we do not act. A  small but vocal minority has taken the position that American public land can be managed better by individual states. They fail to recognize that maintenance of our land would come at a significant cost to the states and would surrender the fate of the land to parochial interests.

Wealth and greed has no consideration for cultural traditions or the inhabitants of these lands that proponents of land tranfers have their sights on. Those supporting land transfers claim gross mismanagement of forests and restrictive U.S. land policy as reasons to transfer public lands, and they claim states can do a better job of managing these lands. However, they offer no alternatives to the way lands are managed and have no record of cooperation with federal land management agencies.

One more thing: if federal land is sold to private interests by the state, there are no guarantees that the new owners will allow traditional communities access to these lands. They would not adhere to the rights of Latino communities to continue their centuries old traditions of use and caring for the land that has sustained them. Our National Forests could become the property of a mega rich company (think: Koch brothers) where only the wealthy can fish, hunt, and recreate. Latino communities have helped shape the management of public land for centuries, and have kept them in a condition where we are able to thrive without devastating our resources.

We cannot take our public land for granted. States, including Arizona, Colorado, Montana, Nevada, and New Mexico, are now exploring legislation that would allow sale of land to the highest bidder. Call your legislators and governor today and tell them to preserve our centuries-old tradition of sharing land for the benefit of all communities.

The nitty gritty: What would it take to make public land transfers happen?

In a study done in the fall of 2014 by the Vermont Law School published in the Vermont Journal of Environmental Law (PDF), the study showed that a number of factors would have to be present for a federal land transfer to the state of Utah to be successful:

1. Oil and gas prices would have to remain high;

2. Expanded oil and gas development would have to happen in order to create revenue to manage additional millions of acres;

3. The United States Government would have to give up their rights to royalties generated by the extractive industries; and

4. If the oil and gas industry is not successful in these states, the states would have to sell off land in order to afford the management of the remaining lands.

This study was done for the State of Utah where this public land transfer movement started. Since there is so much attention directed to the oil and gas industry, I can’t help but think that this whole public land transfer movement is nothing more than a large scale chess game with our oil and gas resources.