GLORIETA MESA — As a colossal Caterpillar tractor reduced one tree after another into a pile of mulch in mere seconds Monday, Stephen Dubinsky and his neighbors watched in horror as the landscape they have called home for decades disappeared before their very eyes.
“They started this in early November,” Dubinsky said, referring to a project by the New Mexico State Land Office to scale back the density of piñon and juniper trees on a large tract of grazing land near the community of Cañoncito.
“I’ve been listening to the screams of these trees as they’re ground into pulp for that long,” he said.
Dubinsky and other area residents said they didn’t receive any notice before the work began and are now struggling to understand why the state is killing so many trees and, in their view, hurting the environment.
“I used to be a tree planter, so I feel like crying,” said Sandy Anderson, 69. “I don’t know what they’re trying to accomplish.”
The so-called Ojo de la Vaca Meadow Restoration Project is designed to “encourage the growth of desirable understory vegetation” while improving forage for livestock and habitat for wildlife, according to a report by the State Land Office, which approved the work. The state hopes to “restore the integrity of shortgrass prairies within the [522-acre] project area and increase the resiliency of the ecosystem to fire, disease and drought,” the report states.
Anthropogenic influences, such as warmer temperatures associated with climate change and livestock use, have created “uncharacteristic densities” of piñon and juniper trees across the site, according to the report.
“The diversity and abundance of desirable grasses and forbs are declining with the continued expansion of the woodlands, thereby decreasing the amount of beneficial forage to livestock and wildlife, as well as increasing the erosion potential of the site,” the report states.
Angie Poss, a spokeswoman for the State Land Office, said in an email that the state treated more than 48,000 acres last year in a range of projects similar to the work on Glorieta Mesa that are meant to improve the health of the land.
“We did so with remarkable outcomes and without a single complaint,” she wrote. “These are tried and true land management methods and we are proud to be able to serve our lessees who earn their livelihood off of the land while also assuring the long-term health of state trust land.”
But area residents suspect the tree-thinning project is doing more harm than good.
“Anybody would tell you that you would not go riding on the ground when it is wet,” Greta Snow, 61, said while pointing to the deep tracks left behind by the Caterpillar tractor. “There’s ruts and those ruts turn to arroyos immediately, so all these little lines we see [the tractor operator] creating, we’ve got arroyos happening.”
Dubinsky offered a similar sentiment, saying the trees anchor the soil and prevent erosion.
“We need the trees,” he said. “We don’t need the destruction to this environment with the erosion they’re going to cause by taking these trees away from us.”
Poss said the state didn’t directly notify area residents but made the public aware of the work in other ways.
“Even though restoration and remediation projects do not require public notice, we made a point to visit the site prior to the Ojo de la Vaca start date, and immediately after that visit we posted our intention to mitigate the invasive plant species in the area on our social media pages and website,” Poss wrote. “The [request for proposals] for contractual services to perform the project was also put in local newspapers and was on our website for the required duration prior to the project.”
Poss also said State Land Commissioner Stephanie Garcia Richard “is committed to transparency and proved that commitment shortly after taking office by supporting legislation to require public notice of large scale land deals such as pipelines or land exchanges.”
Area residents who have raised concerns about the tree-thinning project are scheduled to meet with state officials on the property Wednesday afternoon.
“I want to hear what they’re trying to do,” Anderson said, adding the state should’ve stopped the work until neighbors’ questions were answered.
“I don’t know why they’re going ahead,” she said. “We made a complaint and it would seem more fair if they would’ve just stopped so we could get the story, and they could get our input.”
In a statement provided by the state, Joe Montez, who holds an agricultural lease on the property, said he stands in “strong support” of the tree-thinning project.
“Not only because it will benefit the livestock and wildlife that rely on healthy grass species to graze and forage, but because it will benefit and improve the entire surrounding ecosystem and animal habitat,” he wrote. “The overpopulation of piñon-juniper has caused erosion, patchy grass cover, and unpredictable water flow patterns necessary for a healthy, thriving forested area.”
Dubinsky said the cutting of so many trees amid global warming is baffling.
“All of this being done to benefit a rancher,” he said. “They say they have a criteria of certain diameter trunks they’re supposed to leave, but I’ve seen the wholesale slaughter of fully mature trees and little teeny ones, great big junipers and small ones, cleared out to expose the grass for cows to eat.”
Dubinsky, who lives on a hill overseeing much of the property, estimates the heavy-duty Caterpillar tractor has already thinned out thousands of trees.
“It can reduce a living 20-foot-tall piñon tree to splinters and matchsticks in under 10 seconds,” he said. “It contains a large horizontal cylindrical drum with teeth on it that just whirls. They lower it down on the tree, and it just spits out a 50-yard arc of toothpicks.”
Dubinsky, 69, a landscape artist who has lived on Glorieta Mesa for 38 years, said he sits in his studio and prays for the Caterpillar’s engine to fail.
“I make a living painting New Mexico,” he said. “To see this happening just horrifies me.”