A community advocacy newspaper for northern New Mexico
Box 6 El Valle Route, Chamisal, NM 87521
Pajarito Homesteaders Settlement Agreement Is "Unsettling" By Mark Schiller
Updates on Water Transfer Protests and Adjudications By Kay Matthews
Lobato Land Grant Heirs Seek Justice By Mark Schiller
By Mark Schiller
In our May 2007 issue we ran an article by historian Malcolm Ebright regarding the dispossession of farmers from their homesteads on the Pajarito Plateau by the federal government for the Manhattan Project. That project produced the world's first atomic bomb and led directly to Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL) becoming the government's preeminent nuclear arms facility. In his article Ebright noted that the settlers, who were primarily Hispano, were given between $7 and $15 per acre for their land, while a neighboring private boys school and ranch owned by Anglos was compensated at a rate of $225 per acre. Moreover, many of the farmers were forced off their land by armed soldiers, who then bulldozed their homesteads and slaughtered their livestock. Ebright concluded that "The treatment of these Hispanic property owners is a shameful chapter in U.S. history. The facts of their eviction and the government's active misrepresentation of the valuation process and willful failure to notify the homesteaders of the condemnation proceedings reveal a flagrant disregard for the homesteaders' rights. The homesteaders and their heirs can never be fully compensated for their loss."
This article picks up where Ebright's left off: discussing the efforts, beginning in the mid 1990s, made by a handful of surviving homesteaders and the heirs of many others to force the government to acknowledge the injustices that occurred and devise a plan for compensation. Although Congress ultimately allocated funds for a financial compensation package, the government never actually conceded breaking the law, and a horrific list of human rights violations associated with the settlers' dispossession was never addressed.
According to Judy Espinosa, the current president of the board of the Pajarito Plateau Homesteaders Association, which filed the lawsuits that resulted in the settlement, the association grew out of the concerns of a number of people affiliated with a citizens advisory group associated with LANL. This group met regularly to discuss strategies to redress the injustices that had occurred between 1942 and 1945. In 1997, when New Mexico Senator Pete Domenici sponsored federal legislation ordering the Department of Energy (DOE) to divest itself of "excess property" at LANL in order to increase Los Alamos County's tax base, the then loosely associated homesteader's advocacy group requested 2,500 acres of that land as compensation for land the original homesteaders had lost. Domenici, however, insisted that land was already earmarked for Los Alamos County and San Ildefonso Pueblo, which had loaned the federal government land during the war effort with the understanding that it would be returned when the war ended, and refused to include the homesteaders in the legislation.
The 1997 legislation did specify, however, that the Secretary of Energy (who at the time was Bill Richardson) had to address the homesteader group's claims before the land transfer could proceed. Ironically, Richardson, after assuring Joe Gutierrez, the first president of the Pajarito Plateau Homesteader's Association, that he would resolve the issue, offered the group nine acres for a monument recognizing Hispano contributions to the war effort and funds to preserve the original settlers' cabins and other buildings that had survived Army Corp of Engineers demolition. In response, Gutierrez, a LANL engineer and outspoken critic of the Lab, said, "We want land, not a monument. We want to prove that the government does not have clear title to these lands."
Gutierrez, who has done extensive research into the homesteader's dispossession and the dispossession of local people at other nuclear facilities such as White Sands, Oak Ridge, and Hanford, noted that in each case wealthy Anglo land owners who could afford representation were compensated for their land at fair market value, while poor and minority land owners were compensated at a tiny fraction of market value if they were compensated at all. He also notes that he had to repeatedly resort to the Freedom of Information Act in order to obtain records that should have been readily available.
Formalizing itself into a non-profit, the Pajarito Plateau Homesteader's Association filed two lawsuits: one addressing the injustices associated with the loss of the land, and the other alleging human rights violations. Because Ebright's article comprehensively detailed the injustices associated with the condemnation of the property (these included lack of notice, lack of representation, loss of due process, and inequitable compensation), I won't dwell on them here, but I will touch briefly upon the human rights violations issues.
The human rights lawsuit alleged that some of the homesteaders were falsely imprisoned and forced to labor on construction of the Manhattan Project without proper compensation. It further alleged that some homesteaders were "subjected to medical experimentation by being exposed to high levels of radiation." Bear in mind that most of the homesteaders lives were completely disrupted by the dispossession: they had nowhere to go and no means of earning a living. As a result, many were forced to accept menial jobs working for the DOE. Several members of the Homesteader's Association told La Jicarita News that they had conducted lengthy interviews with elderly original homesteaders who told them that they had been forced to live in DOE facilities and do construction for one dollar per day. They further asserted that they were not permitted to leave the restricted area and were only able to shop at the DOE commissary, which was exorbitantly expensive. They also claimed to have been used to transport plutonium without adequate protection and forced to drink what they were told was medicine because they were "sick", despite their protestations to the contrary. One of the former homesteaders claimed he had become sterile as a result. This shocking story was never made public, however, because the government dismissed the case on the basis that the statute of limitations for bringing it had expired. (La Jicarita News hopes to explore this issue more fully in an upcoming issue)
In fact, both cases were dismissed because of statute of limitations violations. In a statement that eerily echoed what the Court of Private Land Claims told many land grant heirs whose legitimate titles they refused to confirm, the Homesteader's Association was told "their remedy lies with the legislative branch." Unlike land grant heirs, however, the homesteaders were able to pursue their claim before Congress because they had continued legal representation.
According to Gutierrez, the politics surrounding the eventual settlement were disturbing, to say the least. Gutierrez asserts that Senator Domenici, who has predicated much of his political career on delivering pork barrel money for defense facilities at Los Alamos, Sandia Labs, and White Sands, insisted on "managing" the issue himself and used his political clout to keep Senator Bingaman and Congressman Udall at arms length. Domenici, Gutierrez says, not only wanted to settle the claim for pennies on the dollar, but to be seen as a "white knight" correcting an historical injustice. Gutierrez further asserts that the association's lawyers did not aggressively pursue the case and exploited the association's fear that if they didn't play ball with Domenici they might not get anything at all.
Although there was debate within the association whether members should support Domenici's proposal, the majority ultimately decided that it was their only hope of getting any compensation. As a result, on October 28, 2004, Congress passed an act entitled "Compensation Of Pajarito Plateau, New Mexico, Homesteaders For Acquisition Of Lands For Manhattan Project In World War II." While the act did not concede any wrong doing on the government's part, it did provide $10 million dollars to compensate "eligible claimants" (". . . any class member determined by the Court, by a preponderance of evidence to be a person or entity who held a fee simple ownership of an eligible tract [the settlement agreement designated thirty-two "eligible tracts" comprising 2,487.54 acres] at the time of its acquisition by the United States during World War II for use in the Manhattan Project, or the heir, successor in interest, assignee, or beneficiary of such a person or entity.") and their lawyers.
According to Judge Joseph Caldwell, who was appointed Special Master in charge of distribution of funds, the lawyers were given twenty per cent-$2 million dollars-off the top, leaving $8 million dollar for the claimants. The claims were then pro-rated based upon the size of the original eligible tract with which the claim was associated, the proximity in generational lineage of the claimant to the original owner, and the number of claims associated with the tract. Judge Caldwell told La Jicarita News that there were approximately 1,200 claims involving 974 claimants (some claimants made claims to multiple tracts) and that 762 of those claims had been authorized for payment. Thus far payments amount to $7,800,000. Although a few elderly claimants with small families received about $100,000, Judge Caldwell went on to say that because some claims involved five generations of a family, payments amounted to as little as $150.
While Joe Gutierrez understands why the claimants decided to accept the settlement, which absolves the government of any future liability with regard to both lawsuits, he suggests that an equitable settlement would have amounted to $60 million dollars. He continues to collect information regarding the issue and told La Jicarita he plans to write a book detailing the entire history of the dispossession and the claimants' efforts to be compensated.
Meanwhile, Judy Espinosa has recently located the heirs to the only tract that received no claims, and Judge Caldwell said he hopes to have the entire fund and its interest dispersed by the end of 2007. He noted, however, that the DOE is not an easy agency with which to do business and acknowledged that the project may drag into the new year.
By Kay Matthews
It was hot and humid at New Mexico State University's Sustainable Agriculture Science Center field day on August 9, but that didn't dampen anyone's enthusiasm for the good work they are doing there. Most of the Center's research focuses on identifying crops that grow well in the New Mexican environment, along with acequia and pest control projects that help farmers and ranchers keep land in agricultural production.
La Jicarita News went on all three morning tours that showcased the Center's projects. Charles Martin took us to the medicinal herb and dye plant garden where the Center has conducted trials on three important herbs: Yerba del Manso, used to treat colds, sinus, and stomach ailments; Cota, used as a dye and medicinal tea; and Osha del Campo, also used for colds. The trials included irrigation needs, soil content, and temperature tolerance. Many of us who live in northern New Mexico gather these plants in the forest for our own personal use, but the experiments conducted at the Center are geared towards encouraging people to grow these medicinal and dye plants as a cash crop.
A beautiful row of Echinacea, one of our most beneficial herbs
With that in mind, the Center got a grant to look at 30 species of Chinese herbs. It found that Chinese Wolfberry, in the same family as chile, grows well in an environment of full sun and lean soil, common conditions in New Mexico. The herb sells for $24/pound. The New Mexico Herb Growers Association is a good source of information for those interested in trying to commercially grow Chinese Wolfberry or any other herbs.
The Center has also conducted a long-term trial program with lavender, an essential oil crop, because it is easy to grow and easy to market. Originally from Ethiopia it is drought tolerant, likes alkaline soil, and is easy to harvest. (The Center sponsored a Lavender Conference and Farm Tour in July of this year.) Another essential oil that can easily be grown here is lemon balm: both lavender and lemon balm can be made into a variety of products that provide a good rate of return.
One plant in the medicinal garden that caught my eye was burdock. Those of us who have fields of hay or other crops usually look upon this biennial as a pesky weed: the seed heads are full of burrs that get caught in anything that gets near them and then are spread quickly throughout the field. But in China and Japan both the root and seed of burdock are used in stews and as cleansing products. There is a market in the United States for burdock and other Chinese herbs, and while Martin acknowledged that some of them are hard to harvest, he encouraged folks to look into their production.
The next tour highlighted the work the Center is doing with fruit and berries. It was encouraging to see a fruit crop that survived this year's late frosts, which killed many of our apple and peach crops throughout northern New Mexico. As the Center does with the medicinal and dye plants, it focuses on finding fruit species that can survive late and early frosts as well as extreme temperature variations: Ron Walser, NMSU fruit expert, told us that he recorded May temperatures that went from 29 degrees at night to 84 degrees the next day.
There were many varieties of apples planted in the Center's orchard, but Walser highly recommended Gala, Fuji, Ginger Gold, and Golden Delicious as cold tolerant (for an extended list of variety recommendations you can contact Walser by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org). For fertility the Center uses a cover crop of alfalfa for both the trees and berries, and waters the trees with a micro-sprinkler system, which during a cold spell will freeze water on the ground that in turn creates rising heat that protects the trees.
We all got to enjoy the ripening raspberries and blackberries that were planted at the Center in 2002. Walser recommended two varieties of raspberries that are especially good for the high elevations of northern New Mexico: Polano and Caroline. Heritage can be grown at lower elevations, as its fruit ripens later in the year. Walser also identified the varieties of blackberries that have been most successful: the semi-trailing Triple Crown and Chester. The Center harvests 13 to 15,000 pounds of raspberries per acre and 10 to 12,000 pounds of blackberries per acre.
High tunnel design hoophouse
Some of the raspberries are being grown in hoop- houses as another Center project. Del Jimenez, NMSU Agricultural Specialist, showed us the three types of designs the Center uses: the rounded hoop; the high tunnel; and the straight line. The latter two are high enough for someone to stand in upright. Hoophouses obviously function as greenhouses that extend the growing season in the spring and fall. The Center grows Osha del Campo in a hoophouse, and the raspberry plants grown in the hoophouse produced berries two and a half months prior to those grown outside. Jimenez made the offer that in partnership with county Agricultural Extension Offices, NMSU will help you build a hoop house on your land, provided the Center can use it as an educational project and you provide the materials. Contact your county extension agent if you're interested.
NMSU Agriculture Specialist Del Jimenez
The third tour focused on acequias, forages, and turf grass. La Jicarita News covered a presentation by Sam Fernald of the Center's acequia project several years ago at the New Mexico Organic Conference. This project has been documenting the relationship of acequia water to groundwater recharge and the rate of return of acequia water to its parent river. The research estimates that the rate of return is close to 50%, which is the credit the Office of the State Engineer allows, and that acequias raise the level of the groundwater table, create riparian environments, and remediate groundwater as well. A particularly interesting figure Fernald provided is that the amount of evaporation off Elephant Butte Reservoir exceeds the amount of consumptive use in all northern New Mexico acequias. It is vital that we maintain our acequia systems that keep farmland in agricultural production and improve both water quality and quantity.
For further information you can access the Center's website at: alcaldesc.nmsu.edu. If you want to be on the mailing list send your request to: Sustainable Ag. Science Center at Alcalde, P.O. Box 159, Alcalde, NM 87511.
Copyright 1996-2006 La Jicarita Box 6 El Valle Route, Chamisal, New Mexico 87521.