Many cacti in the foreground, mountain range and blue cloudy sky in background.
Gila Riparian Preserve Fall colors at Gila Preserve in New Mexico. The Gila Riparian Preserve protects more than 1000 acres of the Southwest's fragile riparian habitat and the verdant gallery woodland along the Gila River, the last of the Southwest's major free-flowing rivers. © Michael Fugagli

Stories in New Mexico

Working With Indigenous Peoples

In New Mexico, we acknowledge and learn from our Indigenous communities.

Indigenous Peoples have been caring for the land for millennia which includes cultural burning to maintain the health of their ancestral lands, in ceremony, for habitat protection and fuel reduction. Healthy lands support their cultural customs, supply traditional foods and medicines as well as the wildlife on which they rely.

However, when European colonizers landed on what is now known as the United States, the “right to burn” was taken from the original stewards of the landscape. This is slowly changing, as Indigenous leaders are working to bring fire back to their community.

TNC is committed to creating, promoting and perpetuating a narrative and future in which nature and people can thrive and coexist. Our mission must encompass inclusion, collaboration and support of the ancestral and current stewards of our natural systems.

We take this opportunity to acknowledge the ancestral homelands of the Indigenous Peoples of the U.S. Southwest including New Mexico, which is home to  19 Pueblo communities, Fort Sill Apache, Jicarilla Apache, Mescalero Apache, Navajo Peoples and Ute Mountain Tribe.

We pay our respect to these traditional stewards, past, present and emerging, who have been the custodians of these lands and waters since time immemorial.

Thank you to the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center for their support in developing TNC’s land acknowledgement in New Mexico. 

Learning from the Past

When severe wildfires burn on Indigenous Peoples homelands, they not only pose a serious threat to homes, but also to critical water supplies, food sources, and culturally significant natural products.

“The health of the land is synonymous with the health of our people,” said Margo Robbins, executive director of the Cultural Fire Management Council and a member of the Yurok Tribe. “The brush in our forests is so thick you cannot walk forest. Neither can big animals. We want our elk back.”

The tribe uses elk for blankets, clothing, drums and other domestic materials. Losing access means more than losing land, it means a loss of resources and way of life. 

Man in backpack hikes on trail next to mountain range.
Maintaining New Mexico's Natural Areas Stewardship work as part of the Rio Grande Water Fund © Collin Haffey/TNC

Shaping Our Present

TNC has been collaborating with Indigenous Peoples on forest and watershed management projects across northern New Mexico for several years. And we have seen that as our connections deepen, our cooperative work has grown significantly.

One example of this collaborative approach is TNC’s support of Pueblos as they rebuild their forested watersheds in the aftermath of wildfires in New Mexico. The 2011 Las Conchas Fire severely impacted 150,000 acres of forested land in the Jemez Mountains, the traditional homelands for several Pueblos and was so  so extreme that it destroyed seed sources for many of the native trees.

In response to this fire, TNC in New Mexico launched the Rio Grande Water Fund (RGWF),  which invests in the restoration of forested lands upstream so we can secure pure fresh water. Our goal is to generate sustainable funding over the next 20 years to proactively increase the pace and scale of forest restoration and reforestation, including the most high-risk areas in the Rio Grande watershed. 

Even after 10 years, iconic trees such as ponderosa pine cannot regenerate on their own in the burn scar. Using climate-resilient seeds, TNC, Pueblos and volunteers are planting tens of thousands of seedling trees - one seedling at a time - across 4,000 acres of the Bandelier National Monument and in the  watershed of the Santa Clara Pueblo.  

Evergreen forest.
Maintaining New Mexico's Natural Areas Stewardship work as part of the Rio Grande Water Fund © Collin Haffey/TNC

Planning for the Future

In the last year, TNC in New Mexico has hosted virtual events to elevate awareness about the revitalization of cultural burning. To build and strengthen our work with Indigenous partners, we have hired our first-ever Indigenous Partnerships program director for New Mexico, John Waconda, of the Pueblo of Isleta. This new program is designed to support and partner with Indigenous Peoples to create a shared future of healthy lands, waters and communities.

Waconda is coming out of retirement from the U.S. Forest Service because – as he says, “there’s work to be done.” He sees opportunities to build more bridges with Indigenous partners to create a more sustainable future by protecting our land and water, together.

“As the state’s regional restoration partnership coordinator, I immersed myself in tribal communications so local community members had a good understanding of the RGWF and how it would benefit people and nature,” he said. “This work will enable me to employ my knowledge, skills and experiences in a way that helps me and my people.”

We these and other new developments on the way, we can look ahead while learning from our past.  

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