Land grant regains access to historic cemetery through Forest Service deal

A marker indicates a land-grant cemetery site owned by the San Joaquin del Rio Chama Land Grant Association. The group recently gained access to the site from the U.S. Forest Service, which had erroneously declared the cemetary as part of a wilderness area. Courtesy of San Joaquin del Rio de Chama Land Grant Association

The U.S. Forest Service has admitted a decades-old error in claiming land in Northern New Mexico that encroached on an 1806 land grant.

Leonard Martinez, president of the San Joaquin del Rio de Chama Land Grant Association and a descendant of the land’s heirs, said that after years of political pressure, the agency has granted access to the disputed 5 acres, the site of a cemetery that was used by the land grant heirs for generations.

The agency agreed with the association about the mistake in August, and on Oct. 26 it held a public event announcing the finding.

The land grant heirs and the Forest Service will still need to formalize what the association can and can’t do on the land, Martinez said, adding that the process could take a few months.

Advocates for New Mexico families who contend their land-grant rights — guaranteed by the Spanish government before the United States acquired the region — haven’t been adequately recognized saw the agency’s decision as a rare bright spot in their legal and political struggle.

“This is the most positive thing that has happened in 100 years,” said Manuel Garcia y Griego, a University of New Mexico professor who helped the association survey the disputed land. Garcia y Griego heads a land grant studies program at the university.

In 1978, the federal agency had declared the land in the Chama River Canyon Wilderness Area, where the cemetery is located, as part of the wilderness. As a result, access to the cemetery was only allowed by foot or horseback.

Martinez said the restrictions prevented some of the descendants of land-grant heirs, who are disabled or elderly, from accessing the cemetery. As part of the agreement between the association and the Forest Service, a trail was built to ease access to the cemetery, where some of the descendants’ family members are buried. But under the deal, no living descendants of the land grant heirs can be buried there in the future, Martinez said.

The association had for years lobbied the Forest Service for greater access to the cemetery, and part of New Mexico’s congressional delegation had plans to introduce legislation that would have allowed that in 2011. But the Forest Service then declared that the 1978 boundaries were never finalized.

Dennise Ottaviano, a spokeswoman with the Santa Fe National Forest, said the wilderness boundaries were able to be changed administratively instead of congressionally, because the agency still had yet to finalize the land survey.

“Essentially, we were able to turn back the clock to [1978],” Garcia y Griego said.

Martinez said this was a rare moment in the history of disputed land grants between heirs of the land grants from the Spanish crown and the federal government.

“It’s kinda weird to have the Forest Service … help us,” he said.

But he said the main goal was to get the descendants of the 1806 land-grant heirs recognized as owners of the cemetery. Martinez said the association is looking forward to continuing to work with the Forest Service and hopes this announcement has built momentum for other land-grant heirs across New Mexico who have been pursing claims to disputed land with the federal government.

Contact Uriel J. Garcia at 986-3062 or ugarcia@sfnewmexican.com. Follow him on Twitter at @ujohnnyg.