August 4, 2020

Bill to protect traditional land uses for land grant and acequia communities advances in the House

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La Canova Acequia near Velarde, New Mexico. Public domain.

A bill introduced by U.S. Rep. Ben Ray Luján and co-sponsored by Rep. Deb Haaland that would help land grant and acequia communities retain access to public lands for traditional uses  advanced in Congress. 

The Land Grant and Acequia Traditional Use Recognition and Consultation Act would require more consultation between the federal government and land grant and acequia groups in New Mexico in public lands management. 

“The legislation will make it easier for land grant mercedes to work with federal land management agencies such as the Forest Service,” Luján said during a virtual legislative hearing in June, by requiring federal agencies “to make land grant mercedes aware of changes to management plans and encouraging agencies to mitigate any adverse impacts due to federal action.”

The bill would also create “a process to allow New Mexico’s land grants to establish their historic boundaries and provides them with pathways for acquiring that land when the federal government disposes of it,” Luján said, and that it would “ensure that the federal government appropriately recognizes spiritual and cultural sites while providing greater tools for land grants to acquire the lands that these sites reside on.”

Between the 17th and 19th centuries, the Spanish crown, and later the Mexican government, offered land grants to communities and individuals in New Mexico and across the southwest to promote settlement of the area. The land grants included tracts of communal land that were used for livestock grazing, firewood access and water delivery infrastructure such as acequias. 

After the signing of the 1848 Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, which transferred more than half of the territory in Mexico to the United States, the U.S. federal government was tasked with establishing a process for adjudicating the land grant titles

Instead, the government sold off millions of acres of communal land, which Arturo Archuleta, program manager at the New Mexico Land Grant Council, said jeopardized those communities’ survival and their agrarian way of life. 

“Our communities included common lands that provided the natural resources needed for our survival. These common lands were never intended to be privatized nor alienated from the communities’ common ownership and use,” Archuleta said during the virtual hearing. 

The adjudication process was “faulty, inefficient, inequitable and in some cases fraudulent and corrupt — oftentimes, with U.S. federal government officials directly involved in the corruption,” Archuleta said. 

“The end result of this unjust process was that millions of acres of common lands were stripped of the ownership of our local communities. Much of these former common lands are now managed by federal agencies like the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management,” he said. 

Archuleta said the bill, the product of 10 years of work between land grant and acequia communities and the state’s congressional delegation, offers “important first steps in rectifying the historical injustices that have crippled our communities for over a century.”

“Over the years, our communities have been placed at odds with federal land management agencies, not by our own choice, but as a direct result of having our traditional use needs ignored — partly because we are not always at the table when land management decisions are being made,” Archuleta said. “The passage of [bill] H.R. 3682 would help ensure federal land management policies and practices regardless of changes in the administration, will honor, respect, protect and conserve our traditional uses now and for future generations.” 

The bill moved out of the House Committee on Natural Resources on July 30 and now heads to the House floor.