Las Humanas

Posted: May 2, 2005
Written by: 
Jane Braxton Little

Manzano Mountains, Torrance County, New Mexico

Objective: To develop and sustain a local workforce to restore and care for the natural resources of the Manzano Mountains region.

History: The area east of the Manzano Mountains south of Albuquerque has been home for centuries to numerous Spanish land-grant communities. They have historically depended on the local forests for firewood, food, building materials and water. In return, they have kept timber stands healthy through careful thinning, prescribed burns and other management tools.

This delicate balance unraveled in the mid-1990s. To safeguard the Mexican spotted owl, under federal protection as an endangered species, U.S. Forest Service officials blocked access to traditional woodcutting areas under their management. Local unemployment was already rampant - over 45 percent. Many families lived from woodpile to woodpile, selling firewood to earn money for food. The loss of even this meager existence was as insulting as it was devastating. Many workers were forced to leave home to find seasonal work outside of the region.

Concerned as they were about the loss of traditional jobs and forest materials, Manzano-area residents were even more alarmed by the changes they began to see in the watershed. Under Forest Service management, timber stands were becoming overstocked with small-diameter trees, creating an unnatural fire hazard and lowering the water table. One estimate showed groundwater storage declining so rapidly that it projected an end to the available supply in the year 2040.

In 1996 leaders from four local communities organized a series of public meetings to assess community reaction to the issues of unemployment and forest management. The turnout astonished even the most optimistic among them. It pointed to the need for a strong organization to deal with the numerous problems facing the mountain towns. They founded Las Humanas to represent the communities of Manzano, Torreon, Tajique, Punta de Agua, Abo and Mountainair.

George Ramirez, chairman of Las Humanas
Photo by Jane Braxton Little

The organization's name, "The People," embodies its primary mission: People working with people. It aims to reconnect residents of the land-grant communities with the mountains, the forests and the watershed. Las Humanas is designed to develop a workforce to restore the land through culturally oriented economic development for local residents, primarily Hispanics.

The group's first project was thinning 16 acres of the Cibola National Forest, one of 28 stewardship pilot projects authorized by Congress in 1998. Las Humanas was the first to complete on-the-ground work under the historic legislation. It involved around 100 workers, many of them volunteers, most of them part time. In addition to firewood, they produced posts, latillas and vigas used in traditional Southwesters building construction. Much of the firewood was donated to elderly and needy people.

Since then Las Humanas has completed numerous thinning projects on federal, state and private land. In the process, the group has trained workers and built a local workforce flexible enough to meet the challenging constraints of weather, wildlife breeding seasons and bureaucracies. It has worked in successful partnership with federal, state and county governments as well as private ranchers and landowners.

Accomplishments: Las Humanas has proven the value of a local workforce whose members are dedicated to the forests and watershed surrounding their communities. It has trained and provided work for over 100 local residents, who have thinned and built fuel breaks on hundreds of acres of federal, state and private land. Instead of developing a niche market for these forest materials, Las Humanas directed most of them toward traditional uses in the local area. The wood products and jobs generated have stimulated the communities with hope as well as income.

A socio-economic study Las Humanas conducted demonstrated that most funding from a state fuels-reduction program was going to wealthy residential areas. As a result, New Mexico awarded money to the group, which used it to reduce the threat of catastrophic fire in lower-income communities.

The project that created the most excitement was a 10-page booklet describing local plants and their traditional uses. It grew out of a mandate to monitor forest restoration work. Instead of counting stems and recording the spacing, Las Humanas sent its crew of youth workers, along with Youth Conservation Corps members, to community elders. They went to the mountain together, the elders identifying important medicinal plants and explaining their use to the kids, who wrote it all down. The result is Traditional Herbs of the Manzano Mountains, a book of photographs, maps and plant inventories.

The herb book helped repair relationships among generations and restore a sense of pride in local traditional knowledge. Neighboring communities were so eager to share their own local information and the process Manzano enjoyed that Las Humanas has committed to creating a booklet for each one.

During the 2004 work season, crews completed three woodlot sales from the Forest Service that required them to do all slash treatment and forest cleanup. They sold the harvested materials as latillas, vigas and firewood. In 2005 Las Humanas is collaborating with a furniture outlet to thin and harvest a sale purchased by the company.

Crews will also do the woods work in a Collaborative Forest Restoration Program using federal funds available to projects in New Mexico. The pinion pine harvested will go into a composite plastic used to make signs.

Challenges/constraints: Las Humanas faces a constant battle to generate forest-related jobs for local workers. The work is seasonal and the project development erratic. Although over 100 people have been trained and want the work, the work itself comes and goes.

The vagaries of government bureaucracy pose headaches that include workers' compensation, contract bidding and liability. Payroll, bookkeeping and accounting are also struggles for the organization that initially hoped only "to cut some firewood and vigas." Las Humanas has avoided the pitfall of growing beyond its capacity, but the scale of government contracts often leaves its workers out of the competition.

For more information see:

Univ. of Michigan-Las Humanas Profile

Cibola National Forest

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