Curing Practices
Conservation and Recreation in San Juan /Rio Grande National Forest
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Michael with Tree Trunk Michael with Tree Trunk The following is an interview transcription from the 1998 Smithsonian Folklife Festival with participant Michael Blakeman, environmental education specialist at the san Juan/Rio Grande National Park. Interview by Cynthia Vidaurri, co-curator of the Rio Program.*
The Rio Grande
Traditional Knowledge and Management of Environment in the Parks around the River
CV: We are here with Mike Blakeman to discuss traditional knowledge and management of environment in the parks around the river. Let’s start out by asking Mike what he does at the National Park.

MB: My official title is Environmental Education Specialist.

CV: So, what does that mean?

MB: It means I teach. I teach people about the natural environment, and help people from pre-school age through nursing home relate to the natural environment.

CV: What is your favorite group to work with?

MB: I think I like all the groups. They all have things that is, you know, that are very enjoyable but I have to admit, I do have a bias towards that middle—elementary level—about third and fourth graders. They are so enthusiastic and they are so great at giving you love. They still come up and give you big hugs, you know. They are really interested and they ask a lot of questions. So that’s a real strength there. You get a lot of good positive feedback. High school level, they don’t tend to give you that positive feedback as much but you can deal at a lot higher levels with them, which is also fun.

CV: You just said something interesting. The kids at the third/fourth grade level, they can give you that love back. You had a good story about doing your work and how your work is perceived by the public-at- large. Here you are seen as a defender and at the same time you are seen as the bad guy of the environment. Do you want to tell us a little bit about that?

MB: I wouldn’t necessarily say a bad guy of the environment as much as a bad guy to a way of life sometimes. So, I walked into a classroom once where a third grader looks up at me and I’m wearing a Forest Service suit. I like to call it the "pickle suit". I was wearing a Forest Service suit and this third grader looks up at me and he says, "Do you work for the Forest Service?" and I point to my little insignia here and say, "Yes. Yes, I work for the Forest Service." He goes, "My dad doesn’t like you." I said: "Wow, your dad doesn’t even know me, and he doesn’t like me." Part of that deals with different land uses and what we find is local people, some of the local people many times don’t have the same love for public lands as other people who live especially in urban environments because you may not have the public lands to be able to go to in an urban or suburban environment. You can suddenly go out to these public lands, and it’s wonderful. In the northeast, where I grew up, there’s not a lot of public land. There’s some. But I mean, if I went out in my backyard, I was trespassing into somebody’s private land. Well, out in these areas, some of our counties are 80-90 percent public land and so these people, many of these people would rather have more private land. They want that land to be able to use the way they want to without Big Brother looking down at them and telling them how they are supposed to use that land. And you know, our job as an agency is to help to use that land wisely and to try to balance all those different uses. Because of that, if this one person wants to have his own or her own special use of this land and we’re kind of getting in the was—telling this person you can’t use it quite that way or we’re putting some restrictions on how they use it—you can see how we are the bad person.

CV: How many uses does this particular park have? You have livestock, recreation. How many uses?

MB: Our major use is recreation, but we have different kinds of recreation. We have so many different kinds that we have fighting even within recreation: motorized versus non-motorized is big. Snowmobilers versus crosscountry skiers is a big battle in the winter. ATV, all-terrain vehicles users versus hikers; hikers versus horseback users; horseback users versus llama users: they all fight over space for recreation.

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It’s amazing how many different conflicts we have even within recreation. And then we have the livestock—raising of sheep, cattle, primarily the livestock raising. That’s where we receive a lot of complaints from those folks, in particular, directed just to the Forest Service. You understand, these are people that have maybe had ranches for over a hundred years or maybe a thousand, maybe two thousand acres. And for many years, their family has been grazing their cattle or sheep on Forest Service land, public land even before it became the Forest Service. They are still thinking, "well, gee wiz, I still want to be able to graze my animals there just the way I always have." We are putting some restrictions on them, trying to. The purpose of putting those restrictions on them is an effort to not make the forest just a ranch, a large ranch, but it is to have other uses there too; take care of the wildlife that is also there; take care of water quality. That is very important, too.

So we have ranching, we have logging. Those are probably our two largest commodity-uses in our forest. We do have some mushroom pickers but not a whole bunch.

CV: What kind of mushrooms?

MB: The one of choice that the mushroom pickers will pick is Chantrells, which are quite tasty. The ones that we have grown are pretty small. They are orange in color, and they smell like apricot. They taste absolutely wonderful. We have several other kinds out there, but those are probably the big money makers as such. We don’t have the industry like the northwest does where we are, but it is starting to grow a little bit more.

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Also we are looking at some of the medicinal plants and traditional uses of some of these plants now. We are actually doing some research right now on this, and this summer should hopefully be a good year for collecting more of this research on some of the traditional uses of these plants. We in no way are planning on restricting the use. We’re just trying to learn more about the uses so that we can hopefully help manage the land in such a way that we can allow these traditional uses and try to control some of the more commercial uses that may suddenly move in and take away from these traditional local uses.

CV: And when you say you are learning more about the traditional uses of the plants, what would be the approach that you would use? Would you use a local herbalist or do you have those kind of folks identified in your communities that you can go to?

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MB: What we do is we, our archaeologist, and the ecologist, go into places like San Luis, which is a 90 percent Hispanic community, and we will go and locate the person or some of the elders there that have worked with this for many years. And we will ask them questions about how they use these medicinal plants. We also are tied in with some of the Ute Indians and although they don’t have any year round establishment or reservation around our forest, they used to migrate into this area during the summers in particular. So, we have had discussions with some of the Utes on how they use these plants also. And Mount Blanco National Forest is considered a holy spot, one of the four holy spots amongst the Utes.

CV: How do you deal with that, I mean, when you have these places that have been held in sacred trust by a population long before the United States existed, long before we had such things as these public recreation places, these public lands? How do you as an individual, as a representative of this agency, how do you manage that? Because you have these issues of local use, use from afar, and of course, there is the whole western tradition of being independent, in conjunction to individual uses, it is a real kind of a complicated mix that you folks deal with.

MB: Right, which is why we are always in the middle of getting beat up. That is why we get in trouble all of the time, and it is actually pretty scary sometimes being in the middle. All I can say is that we do the best that we can. I have seen huge growth in the twenty years that I have been out in Colorado. I have seen huge growth in how I see our forest empathizing with the different users. It seems like twenty years ago we were a lot more structured. But now we are really, I think, we are doing a better job of listening to people in all of those different concerns. For instance we just finished what we call the "Forest Plan Revision," the ten-year plan. And during that process, we asked for input from everywhere. We thought of all the people we could reach, and we sent out letters and phone calls to try to reach those people to try to get them to give us information. We even made a little video about it.

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And so we are trying to get all of this different input from them as to how they think we should be using the forest, what areas are special to them. Everytime we go, and maybe we were planning on doing a timber sale in a particular area. Once again we will go out and ask them, the public, for input about doing a timber sale in this area. And so what we will end up doing though with our forest plan, and our timber sale, or whatever type of management program, we will develop several different alternatives as to how we will manage that land. And for instance, the timber sale, we may have a what we call no change. So that means we go in there and do nothing. We are not going to do any kind of change to that particular area. Then we may have other different levels to clear cut. Everything in-between, we will have these different alternatives in-between and then through the public scoping process, we’ll try to come up with our own specialist working through this. We will try to come up with what we think is the best solution. It is very hard. It is very difficult process. During that process, we get thumped by many people during that process usually.

And I think one of the things that people have to understand is that within learning about the land, there is the learning curve there and I don’t think we ever maybe completely learn perfectly about the land. You know the forest service has certainly made its share of mistakes about how to manage the land, as had the Spanish, as had the American Indians that were there before us. We all have learned from our mistakes.

One of the things that we have started thinking about is managing land through science. Well, science can only give us some answers: it can only tell us what will happen when we manage land. We can say well, if we cut all of these trees down, this is what we can expect to happen —what will happen to water quality, timing of water runoff, what kind of vegetation will come back. Science tells us that. So science gives us some of the answers, but it is human values that help us make those decisions on how we manage that land. That is what Forest Service is about. We are trying to use those values of society as direction on how to manage the land and using science to help us reach the goals that we think we are supposed to be reaching. But what is interesting is that we know that science doesn’t have all of the answers, and we are understanding that there is also a feel for the land, an understanding of the land that you can gain through intuition. That isn’t just through
science. . . .

* transcript edited for clarity

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