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.”

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(12) comments

carol Johnson

This is a disaster for wildlife and trees. Junipers and pinons provide essential food for wildlife. Some of them are hundreds of years old. These trees prevent erosion and dried out soil, while cattle cause erosion, soil disturbance and habitat destruction. In a time of climate change, we cannot continue to destroy our lands and wildlife for the benefit of a few cattle.

Cate Moses

Science is clear: Our best hope against global warming is to plant billions of trees and KEEP EXISTING FORESTS INTACT. Yet governments at every level continue to destroy trees--and what reason could be worse than to create more cow feed. "Farming" cows is an ecological disaster. New Mexico has millions of acres of land without trees, yet we need to destroy forests to create more cow feed? It's no surprise that the beef industry, like Oil & Gas, apparently has the NM State Land Office in its pocket. My heart goes out to these trees and people! I hope they know that there are a number of local environmental groups like Once a Forest, Santa Fe Forest Coalition, and Santa Fe Tree Huggers that work to protect trees. Join us!

Robert Funkhouser

These two paragraphs are illogical:

"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.”

There is no way there can be "remarkable outcomes" after one year. Regrowth of plants and establishment of a new local ecosystem must take more than one year.

Hopefully this is just a journalistic mistatement because if accurate, then spokeswoman Poss is either an idiot or is playing the public for idiots.

Perhaps the SFNM writer or Angie Poss can shed light on the seeming illogical statements.

Myrna Garcia

Have you ever drove to the Rowe Mesa and looked at the trees and wildlife? The cows are damaging the land and water. The water is so polluted with their feces they won't be able to drink it. The trees help with erosion and serve as homes for wildlife maybe even including the spotted owl that the Governor is trying to protect. Did the State Land Office conduct a study on wildlife and how this would impact nature? If you have ever driven up there on a rainy day you would not be able get into the Mesa. I expect the NM State Land Office or other Governmental Entity is ready to spend alot of money on maintaining the roads as they will not be able to drive in since the trees will be gone. As far as the public notice, it was probably posted in places where most of the public would not see it and allow for it to be legal. This is another way around how government can get what they want. This is why there were no complaints. How can anyone complain if they post the notice where no one will see it. It should have been posted in the Santa Fe New Mexican and via mail as a notice to all residents in Ojo De La Vaca, Canoncito, and Glorieta and whichever other communities should have been notified. This is a shame that again NM government is taking action quietly but making sure they follow legal public notice laws.

Paul Chadwick

According to "Windmills & Dreams," the history of Eldorado, this experiment was tried back around mid 20th century on the Simpson Ranch, which later became Eldorado. According to Robert Dobyn, nephew of the ranch-owner, Alva Simpson,

"The rancher is so dependent on the natural grasses which are nonexistent around here and, of course, the moisture you get in the air which is basically nonexistent in this part of the country. The agricultural college at Las Cruces [later New Mexico State University] paid Alva $20,000 or $30,000 a year if they could come up here for a couple of years and bulldoze all the trees down and do a study on the increase of grazing. What happened? The trees were replaced by cactus. No trees came back, no grass came back. It was a total failure, but it was an experiment. But Alva didn't care."

It's apparently why we have so few trees in Eldorado.

William Mee

I was a tree hugger. A son of a Sierra Club member since 1950. I believed that every tree should be saved, and stewarded, and never cut down.

Then as a farmer-rancher I got involved in the N.M. Acequia Association and the Quivira Coalition. With both these entities I learned about carbon sequestration to mitigate Climate Change, the value of controlled burns, the removal of invasive and non-native trees, natural ways of fertilizing and eliminating pesticides. From former State Forester Greg Fitch I learned about a New Mexico Oak Savannah that existed in groves more than 1,500 years ago that existed before any non-native juniper-pinion were here. Trees that created a wetter environment where transpiration occurred about 260 days a year instead of 365 with P&J landscape. Removing P&J and allowing grass growth of native species with roots as deep as 14 feet will retain more water and sequester more carbon than a water guzzling juniper tree. The tree when harvested or dead releases carbon. Just look at the dead zones in aerial photographs around each juniper tree. Mob grazing, and not overgrazing, will expand grass production and Climate Change reversal. The Radical Center science.

Greta Snow

The State lands are supposed to be managed to benefit the school children of NM. How is spending a $1000 a day for 2-3 months (how much is budgeted for this project?) If the budget is $60,000 for clearing the land, how could this ever be recovered?

Sloan Cunningham

Many are planting trees all over the globe. We are killing trees all over as fast as we can. The National Cemetery, without notice, recently murdered countless trees and are moving dirt - flattening the hills - with loud, spitting machines, while shaking the neighborhood who had no notice or chance to speak and try to save the trees.

sandra anderson

I have owned land near the "Ojo de la Vaca Meadow Restoration Project" for 33 years and only began to see any diversification of grass types and wildflowers on my property when I fenced out the free range cows from many years ago and the more recent ones that sometimes escape from their pastures. I understand that cattle may play a part in

the eco-system of farmland/ranch land but need to be carefully monitored and rotated.

Is that happening? Show me the plant diversity in the open areas that have existed for years up here between the trees where the cattle are grazing.

Hunting on State Land would cause a multi-use land to become mono-use----as

any hiker or cow could get shot by mistake. And what about the stray bullet that hops

over the boundary in a rural neighborhood?

Gary Cascio

Apparently the destruction of our environment while doing the bidding of the cattle industry has no political boundaries.

Cate Moses

Yes.

James Baca

This is an atrocious practice that was caused by overgrazing in the first place. All this money expended so a dozen more cows can be put back on the land? And the killing of the 'grandfather' pinon trees is almost a crime. Those are the ones with the good genes that can survive and thrive. I banned this kind of practice when I was Land Commissioner, I hope our current one will do so also, and then pressure the Game and Fish Commission to ban all live trapping of wildlife in New Mexico. She could do this in negotiating new agreements allowing hunters on state lands.

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