Associated Press
Zenaida and Richard Montoya stand in a corral on their property in Ojo de la Vaca, N.M. The couple says the challenges of ranching are being compounded by the popularity of off-roading on public land.

OJO DE LA VACA, N.M. — Richard Montoya looks out the pickup truck's window as he heads down the dirt road toward the steel gate.

To the right, a few cows and horses graze in a pasture bordered by hills thick with pinon and juniper trees. To the left, the remaining stone walls of this once vibrant trading post stand out against the backdrop of Glorieta Mesa.

"So what do you think of this country?" the 67-year-old northern New Mexico rancher says.

It's not a question but rather Montoya's way of affirming the beauty of the surroundings he and his wife, Zenaida, have known all of their lives. They say they're lucky to live on the mesa, raising their horses and cattle and living off the land as their families have done for generations.

But the couple worries about whether they can maintain their traditional way of life now that the challenges of ranching in the West are being compounded by a new threat — the growing popularity of off-road motorized recreation on public land.

And the ranchers of Glorieta Mesa are not alone.

Battles among off-roaders, ranchers, land owners and environmentalists are heating up around the country as the U.S. Forest Service tries to decide which of its millions of acres should be designated for travel by motorcycles, four-wheelers and other backcountry vehicles.

About 36 national forests already have completed travel management maps, and the rest will follow over the next two years. The Santa Fe National Forest, which includes Glorieta Mesa, plans to release its map this summer.

More than half of the Santa Fe Forest is currently open to cross-country motorized travel.

"And with the growing population, the resource impacts of that are unacceptable," Santa Fe Forest Supervisor Daniel Jiron said.

Residents on Glorieta Mesa say irresponsible off-roaders are threatening their livelihood by tearing up the forest they depend on.

Some have photographs of tracks crossing pristine land. Others have stories about their livestock being chased, fences being cut and earthen stock tanks being used for impromptu mud bog sessions.

Forest officials have been talking with off-roaders and others in an effort to determine what the travel plan should look like. But the mesa's residents argue that until recently, they had not been included in the process, making for an even more contentious debate.

Some residents said early maps looked like spaghetti, with roads crisscrossing the mesa. They became suspicious that the travel plan was an effort to force ranchers to give up their grazing allotments on the mesa.

The impacts of off-roading on public land can be measured by monitoring wildlife, meadows and streams. In New Mexico, where people have lived off of the land for centuries, resident Sharon Eliashar said the impact on traditional culture also needs to be considered.

"Their relationship to the land is very deep," she says of her neighbors, many who are fifth-generation ranchers. "It's who they are. It's their identity. Destroying it is like destroying them."

Congress has held hearings on off-road vehicle use on public lands, and a group of New Mexico legislators has taken a keen interest in the issue, especially the cultural aspect.

Democratic Sen. Phil Griego of San Jose earlier this month brought together state leaders and regional forest officials to talk about finding a balance between off-road recreation and New Mexico's traditional ways of life.

"The Hispanic rancher, the Native American rancher and the Anglo rancher were here long before there was a national forest, and they maintained the land," Griego said. "They want to continue to do that. They want to continue to pass the ability to ranch that land, manage that land, down to their grandkids and their great-grandkids."

The off-roading community also has concerns about maintaining their right to enjoy the forest.

"Everything's at stake, not just for us, but really for the whole public that accesses the forest," said Mark Werkmeister, president of the New Mexico Off Highway Vehicle Alliance board of directors.

He said most people use some type of motor vehicle to access the forest, whether they're backpacking, bird watching, hunting or driving motorcycles or ATVs.

Werkmeister acknowledged that off-roaders often get a bad rap, but he said his group promotes responsible use on public land. He said good management by the Forest Service should include restricting use to prevent resource damages.

"But there's a vast difference between closing a forest to motor use and management for proper use," he said.

Daniel Patterson, southwest director of Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, said forest officials need to consider all uses — from off-roading to grazing — when developing the travel plans.

"In a lot of places, we're seeing single-use management, which means off-road vehicles," Patterson said. "Off-road vehicles tend to displace everything else. Good luck hunting and fishing in an area where there's tons of off-road vehicle use."

Patterson said off-roading has become a burden on land management agencies and law enforcement. He said a recent survey of rangers shows off-highway vehicle use is one of the top threats to public lands across the country, especially in the West.

"The truth is," he said, "there's maybe a few good apples who are trying to get a handle on this thing and far too many off-roaders who have just a callous disregard for the rights of other people on public lands."

Ron Lynch, whose family has ranched on the mesa for five generations, said it's not about how big the problem is now but how big it's going to get as the population in the West continues to boom. He pointed to the summer homes popping up on Santa Fe's hillsides.

"We're the last of the frontier. We're the last of the wide open country," he said. "Everybody's discovering that."

For the Montoyas, it's not difficult to see why people are attracted to the mesa. The challenge, they say, is instilling in visitors the same kind of respect the two of them learned growing up as descendants of the land's original stewards.

"We want the forest to be here when our kids have kids," Zenaida Montoya said. "I think once you destroy it, we won't have anything."

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On the Net: Rancher testimony: www.nmdocumentary.com

Glorieta Mesa: www.glorietamesa.org

U.S. Forest Service: www.fs.fed.us

New Mexico Off Highway Vehicle Alliance: www.nmohva.org

Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility: www.peer.org