Voices from the River: A workable trust

Rancher Michael Lucero: finding pragmatic solutions on the Rio Cebolla

By Toner Mitchell

For at least five generations, Michael Lucero’s family has grazed their cattle in New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains on the Rio Cebolla and San Antonio Creek watersheds. This family tradition came under threat in 2014, when the Endangered Species Act listing of the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse forced the Forest Service to exclude cattle from a riparian meadow on the Cebolla deemed to be occupied mouse habitat.

The meadow was pivotal to Michael’s spring and fall operations, so the exclusion severely jeopardized his bottom line. At the time, he wasn’t a big fan of the mouse.

Lucero’s San Diego and Cebolla/San Antonio grazing associations comprise a small group of individuals to whom ranching is but one of several hard-earned sources of household income. Suing the U.S. Forest Service, therefore, was a costly choice, but the only one the grazers saw before them. Perhaps worse, the exclusion and lawsuit sowed the seeds of intractable conflict between the grazers and the government.

A workable trust that took decades to create went up in smoke. It looked like another example of ranchers, agencies and conservationists bogged down in legal gridlock and endless conflict over public lands management.

Through several conversations with Michael over the past few years, he has impressed me with his belief that this so-called “grazing problem” was really a conflict problem based on incomplete perceptions and a lack of imagination among stakeholders.

Evaluating his own position, he reached three conclusions: 1) grazing permittees had no interest in driving the jumping mouse, or any species for that matter, to extinction; 2) with adequate support, grazers had the capacity to adjust their operations to protect the mouse while achieving their own grazing objectives; 3) he and his association members could show how ranching can be good for land health.

Eventually, our conversations evolved into brainstorming various solutions. He showed an interest in working with Trout Unlimited, giving me a chance to back up our track record of working with ranch partners on conservation solutions. Together, we realized that there might be pragmatic ways to address the ranchers’ concerns while protecting the mouse and riparian habitat.

Michael then rekindled dialogue with the agency, presenting some ideas for improving other grazing allotments nearby that would have the effect of relieving grazing pressure on mouse habitat.

Members of the TU's Truchas chapter and grazers celebrate the arrival of water from new pipeline to water trough.

Of their own accord, Lucero’s ranchers had already begun one of these projects in 2016, the replacement of several thousand feet of worn out water line on one of their most important pastures. They’d laid out PVC pipe from a well and storage tank at the uphill end of the pasture, but were unable to bury the line due to permit restrictions regarding the Jemez Mountain salamander—another imperiled species.

In July, with financial and volunteer assistance from TU’s Truchas and Enchanted Circle chapters, Lucero’s crew was allowed to finish burying the line while extending it to portions of the pasture that had not been grazed, due to a lack of watering capacity, for almost 10 years.

The success of this project energized the Forest Service to provide funding for TU to replace a critical supply well that pumped water from the San Antonio Creek floodplain up to pastures atop the surrounding mesas. Almost immediately after being installed, the old well had failed as a result of being installed in a deep geothermal aquifer, which produced scalding water that ruined the well’s casing and pump. Deprived of drinkable well water on the mesa top pasture, cattle were forced to trail downhill to the creek, where, predictably, they often stayed. Elk, capable of riparian damage in their own right, had developed this habit as well.

The new well was drilled into a shallow aquifer that produces abundant cold water for a pasture that Lucero’s members haven’t been able to use for seven years. Thanks to the Forest Service, which also funded a new line to the mesa tops, cattle and elk can spend more time away from the creek and the human contact that this extremely popular recreation site guarantees throughout the foraging season.

The New Mexico meadow jumpinig mouse. 

Jumping mouse populations in the riparian zone have been given a fighting chance, to the imaginable cheers from the creek’s resident brown trout.

Although protecting riparian habitat in the true spirit of multiple use remains an imposing challenge, the collaboration led by Michael Lucero was a lesson in persistence, empathy, and the inestimable value of partnership. But although the success of these and future projects (pasture thinning, more drinkers, erosion abatement) hews solidly towards TU’s mantra of protecting, restoring, reconnecting, and sustaining coldwater fisheries, it highlights how this philosophy must also apply to the human communities that depend on these watersheds for survival.

This is particularly true regarding the concept of reconnecting. We’re all aware of how urbanization and materialism have weakened our connections to the outdoors, how even useful devices like cell phones increasingly render our Earth’s gifts into abstractions. Dedicated rancher stewards like Michael Lucero serve as reminders of how these forces also threaten our rural agrarian communities.

Like clean air, soil, and water, these land-based communities are drifting further from our experience, if not our minds. And as much as we might overlook it, rural communities are ecologically, and therefore inextricably, linked to land health. Improved soil improves water improves air improves human communities. Destroy land-based communities, which have collectively amassed the most intimate knowledge of their surrounding landscapes, and good luck with preserving your fishing and outdoor recreation

In working with Michael Lucero, I’ve realized that building relationships and workable trust—and solving problems together—is key to ensuring both land health and community health. In truth, they’re one and the same.

Toner Mitchell is TU’s New Mexico public lands coordinator.




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