Q&A: HECHO Advisory Board Member Rock Ulibarri

Rock Ulibarri is the San Miguel County Commissioner for District 1 and former educator. He spent many years as a middle school teacher and continues to use his expertise to teach youth leadership at the community college for at risk youth. In addition he taught workshops in grassroots organizing and nonviolent resistance at United World College USA and guided students into the backcountry to teach Leave No Trace wilderness practices. 

The Ulibarris were one of the original 36 families that settled Las Vegas, New Mexico and Rock is the 7th generation on his Family's ranch in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. With a back fence that borders a national forest, Rock has spent his life roaming the outdoors and going backcountry hiking and horseback riding.

HECHO: What’s your family history and heritage?

Rock Ulibarri: The Ulibarri side of my family was one of the original 36 families that settled in Las Vegas, New Mexico and my mother’s side of the family is a mix of Apache and French Canadian (as a result of the cavalry in southern New Mexico). Our ancestry and heritage is assimilated from the Native American community, so we see ourselves as caretakers of the land, not owners.  Indigenous DNA runs through us and makes us uninterested in developing or exploiting the land. The land is sacred. The blood from my father’s umbilical cord is soaked into this land and his mother before him and her mother before that.

I’m part of the 7th generation born in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and for miles up the canyon where I live, it’s just cousins and uncles and relatives. Since we see ourselves as caretakers of the land, we’re not allowed to buy or sell it. Our family tradition is to hand it down to those who want to live on it.

Rock on horseback

Rock on horseback

HECHO: How do you pass that heritage on to your children?

RU: First of all, we don’t have a TV and we’re 30 minutes from town. Our back fence borders a national forest so we can just roam the forest anytime – and that’s what we do. In the summertime we’re rarely indoors. We cook outside. We do everything outside. We have horses and we go backcountry hiking and riding. We’ve been here for a very long time and I still haven’t seen everything there is to see.

My young boy loves fishing and we go quite often in the spring and summer. After he learned to fish, I didn’t ever have to feed him. He’d catch a fish for breakfast, lunch and dinner. He’d catch it, fry it, and eat it. We’re caretakers of the land, we live off the land, and that’s how it’s been for generations.

When I was young I saw pictures from the Great Depression. I asked my grandmother what it was like and she said it didn’t impact her because they were self-sustaining. They grew food in the summer and then canned it. They slaughtered an animal at the first snow for the winter. 

As long as you have land and you have a connection to the land you don’t have to worry about anything like that. That’s why it’s so important to hand down both the land and the traditions to make sure that our children and grandchildren always have a place.

Rock at a hot springs in Las vegas, New Mexico

Rock at a hot springs in Las vegas, New Mexico

HECHO: Why are you interested in working with HECHO?

RU: My personal values and goals are the same as HECHO’s. We’ve been in so many battles over public lands and we need to protect it for the people. The last big battle was when our land commissioner gave away our public lands at White Peak. They are our ancestral hunting grounds where our family has been going for countless generations, so we went to the New Mexico Supreme Court and had the land swap reversed. 

These battles go back to the turn of the century when the railroads were being built and land speculators came. There was a huge movement organized to stop the trickery and thievery of land grants – to stop the fencing off of the land grants and stop the fencing off of the waters. Because of that effort we’re the only place from Texas to California that still has Spanish land grants and the people of northern New Mexico are very proud of that. We didn’t get all of our land back that was stolen, but we have thousands of acres of community land grants so we’re still doing today what we did 300-400 years ago.  In the entire southwest, this is the only place that still holds onto the land grants. That’s why so many people are involved in protecting the land. It's important to note that the vast majority of state and federal public lands in New Mexico were once land grants.

Rock in Washington, D.C.

Rock in Washington, D.C.

HECHO: How have you made a difference in your County?

RU: Most recently I’ve been working with John Olivas, former commissioner of Mora County, to expand the Pecos wilderness. We just had all of that approved at the county commission and I wrote an op-ed about it for the Santa Fe New Mexican. My father always told me if you don’t have a seat at the table that means you’re probably on the menu. 

One of the most pressing things we’re working on is the protection of our watershed. If there’s one catastrophic fire in the city of Las Vegas, we’ll have no water. We have a 95% dependency on runoff, so it’s critical to maintain a healthy watershed. To do so, we have the Hermit’s Peak Watershed Alliance and the community is very involved in its protection. We do a lot of volunteer work and restoration of the rivers. Plus, we do grant writing. After the flood, there was a lot of destruction to our river. Hundreds of volunteers came together and we repaired almost all of it. 

HECHO: Are Hispanics in your community engaged in protecting public lands?

RU: The population here is about 80% Hispanic, so when things like the flood happen, Hispanics make up the majority of people doing the restoration work. The majority of the landowners that buy into these programs are also Hispanic and they’re ensuring that the projects are done well and the land is managed well. 

There are many patches of private land within the national forest, so everybody has to get along to make sure that we have a healthy watershed and a healthy forest. And we do, we work together and get along very well.