WED: Slate of NM regulatory candidates sparks concern over lack of representation, + More – KUNM

Slate of New Mexico regulatory candidates sparks concern By Susan Montoya Bryan Associated Press
Many decisions by New Mexico’s most powerful regulatory panel have had direct economic and environmental consequences for one corner of the state, and yet not one candidate nominated to fill the Public Regulation Commission is from northwestern New Mexico.
Critics are concerned about the lack of representation as Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham prepares to pick a new commission as part of an overhaul that takes New Mexico voters out of the equation. A constitutional amendment approved in 2020 turns the commission from a five-member elected body to a three-person appointed panel charged with overseeing electrical utilities and other industries.
Former two-term governor and U.S. diplomat Bill Richardson is among those taking notice. He called it “a glaring omission,” saying residents in the area need to have a voice in future regulatory decisions.
He pointed specifically to Navajos, saying members of the Native American tribe have borne the brunt of energy development over decades, from tapping oil and natural gas reserves and uranium deposits to hosting major coal-fired power plants that have provided electricity to millions of customers elsewhere in the Southwest.
“To ignore northwestern New Mexicans and the Navajos in Cibola, McKinley and San Juan counties is both short-sighted and insensitive,” Richardson told The Associated Press in a phone interview. “The PRC needs to go back to the drawing board. Period.”
The former Democratic governor rarely interjects himself in New Mexico politics these days and works mostly on international issues that include freeing political prisoners and others. However, he has strengthened his relationship with Navajos over the past few years through a relief fund he and former Navajo Nation President Peterson Zah created to bring tribal members supplies during the coronavirus pandemic.
Richardson noted that many Navajo families still lack running water and electricity despite living in the shadow of the Four Corners Power Plant and the recently shuttered San Juan Generating Station.
Most of the nine candidates under consideration are from New Mexico’s most populated areas — Albuquerque and Santa Fe.
“I just think it was very insensitive and wrong not to include a Navajo,” Richardson said.
Lujan Grisham has until the end of December to make her appointments. The New Mexico Senate will have to confirm her choices.
Nora Meyers Sackett, a spokeswoman for the governor, said Lujan Grisham understands the impact of the energy transition on communities across New Mexico, including those affected by coal plant closures. She also said the governor will continue the government-to-government relationship she has with the Navajo Nation as the state makes its shift toward renewable energy.
As for the nominees, Sackett said the appointments will be the culmination of a multi-step process that was approved by the Legislature and voters.
“The governor’s role is just one aspect of the comprehensive process that seeks to ensure qualified professionals can be relied upon to work on these technical matters that affect every New Mexican,” Sackett said.
Given that the nominating committee sent the governor more names than statutorily required, there was no indication Lujan Grisham would seek more candidates or ask the committee reconsider its list.
A few state lawmakers from both sides of the aisle have voiced concerns similar to Richardson’s, along with consumer advocacy groups and activists who work on behalf of Native American groups.
Krystal Curley, the executive director of Indigenous Lifeways and a plaintiff in a recent case over the issue that reached the New Mexico Supreme Court, said the new commission will not be a reflection of New Mexico’s communities.
“Northwest New Mexico is majority Indigenous and we have been bearing the burden of New Mexico’s fossil fuel addiction for far too long,” she said in an email. “We now have no say in what the energy future holds for frontline communities.”
Curley said the fight to hold government officials accountable for the health and well-being of Native American families will continue.
Jeff Peace was among 15 finalists before the nominating committee further whittled down the list. An engineer who used to work at the Four Corners Power Plant and now teaches at San Juan College, Peace said he has seen the impacts of regulation in his community of Kirtland. He talked about Navajo neighbors who have lost their jobs.
While he’s disappointed he didn’t get nominated, Peace said Wednesday that his main concern is ensuring someone will protect the interests of residents.
“We don’t have that now. And if it’s not me, then somebody else,” he said. “But like I said, we just keep getting shortchanged up here.”
Having qualified candidates who can represent the diverging demographics of rural and urban communities has been an issue for years. More than 20 years ago, state lawmakers on a transition committee carved out a commission district with a high Native American population to represent northwestern New Mexico.
Democratic Rep. Miguel P. Garcia of Albuquerque, a member of that early committee, said a Native American has represented that district since its creation and that person has traditionally been an advocate for consumers.
“Unfortunately, all that will cease to exist,” he said, fearing that the newly appointed board will be out of touch with the majority of New Mexicans.
Ahtza Dawn Chavez, the executive director of the NAVA Education Project and NM Native Vote, said a call by advocates for Native Americans to apply resulted in a few applications being submitted. Only one — attorney Joseph Little — is among the finalists.
She said a Native voice on the commission is a must and she hopes the governor makes the right choice.
“It would be pretty disastrous for a regulation commission not to have an understanding of the communities that they are affecting,” Chavez said. “These are marginalized, disenfranchised communities.”
Court of Appeals rules that landlords must wait three full days before bringing eviction cases to court By Patrick Lohmann, Source New Mexico
The New Mexico Court of Appeals ruled recently that lower courts erred when they allowed the eviction of a Las Cruces tenant in 2018, a ruling advocates say will help renters across the state resolve issues with landlords before they go before a judge.
New Mexico Legal Aid represented the tenant in local court and in his appeal. A landlord alleged the tenant was behind $500 in rent, according to legal filings, and filed for eviction. He issued the tenant a Three Day Notice of Nonpayment of Rent on a Saturday in early August of 2018, then filed for eviction on a Tuesday.
The appeals court ruled that landlords must wait a full three days, not including the day of service, before they can file an eviction claim in court. The case should have been dismissed because the landlord didn’t wait until Wednesday to file the paperwork, the appellate court ruled.
Despite not giving the tenant the full three days to come up with the money, a magistrate court ruled in the landlord’s favor anyway, according to Legal Aid, and issued an eviction order for Aug. 24, 2018.
Advocates say the Appeals Court ruling is a way to give tenants as much time as legally allowable to come up with rent or a way to correct issues before they go to court, where judges can act quickly to order someone’s eviction.
“Eviction cases tend to move very fast once they’re filed,” said Riley Masse, managing attorney for New Mexico Legal Aid. “So it’s critical that courts not chip away at the little time tenants have to resolve issues before a case is filed.”
The Appeals Court issued its ruling Oct. 31, and the appeal window closed this week.
The ruling also applies to cases where a tenant receives a seven-day notice of eviction. Those are issued in cases where a tenant is accused of violating the lease for reasons other than lack of rent, said Tom Prettyman, a New Mexico Legal Aid lawyer who represented the tenant in 2018.
Lawmakers have tried for several years to change the amount of time tenants have to get rent money together after being served a notice of nonpayment. At the moment, a tenant has only three days to come up with rent after being notified that they are late to avoid grounds for eviction in court. That’s one of the shortest periods in the country, bill sponsors have said.
A bill that was proposed but failed during this year’s legislative session would have expanded that time to 11 days. The reforms were also geared generally toward giving tenants more time in court and before court to find the money or resolve landlord disputes and stay housed.
New Mexico State hiring investigator to probe fatal shooting – Associated Press
New Mexico State University announced Tuesday that it will hire an external, third-party investigator to review the events surrounding last month’s fatal shooting of a student from a rival school.
NMSU Athletic Director Mario Moccia said Monday night that Aggies power forward Mike Peake has been suspended indefinitely from the basketball team in connection with the Nov. 19 shooting. He added that neither he nor the school could comment on Peake’s enrollment status as a student.
Peake, 21, has not been charged in the pre-dawn shooting on the University of New Mexico’s campus in Albuquerque hours before the host Lobos were to play the Aggies. That game was canceled along with the Dec. 3 rematch in Las Cruces.
“Mike is suspended from our basketball team until the completion of the university’s investigation and the investigation of the proper authorities,” Moccia said. “When those investigations will be complete, I can’t say.”
NMSU officials said the review of the events surrounding the shooting will be separate from the legal investigation currently being led by New Mexico State Police and will also examine the university’s response in the days following the shooting.
“We will be incredibly transparent during this process,” NMSU Chancellor Dan Arvizu said in a statement. “We owe that to our community and to everyone associated with our university. The firm selected will be encouraged to review any public documents regarding this case and be fully empowered to speak with any NMSU employees, students or other individuals necessary to ensure we fully understand the facts.”
State Police investigators have previously said 19-year-old Brandon Travis conspired with two other UNM students and a teenage girl to lure Peake onto campus.
The subsequent shootout left Travis dead at the scene and Peake hospitalized with a leg wound that has required several surgeries.
A brawl at an Oct. 15 UNM-NMSU football game in Las Cruces was a precursor to the shooting, police said.
First-year NMSU men’s basketball coach Greg Heiar was not made available to talk to media until 10 days after the shooting.
He expressed his condolences for Travis and his family and said he took full responsibility for the actions of multiple players who sneaked out of the hotel on that morning of the game.
But until Monday, NMSU officials had not spoken publicly about any specific discipline for Peake related to the shooting.
“If there is criticism over this decision, I am in a position to take it on myself,” Moccia said. “I’ve known this player for years, and I know what kind of person he is. I didn’t feel a need to rush to judgment. I wanted to give the investigation time to play out before making any decisions.”
Peake, a 6-foot-7 junior from Chicago, played one season at Georgia before transferring to Austin Peay State University in Tennessee. He joined New Mexico State in 2021 and averaged 4.1 points and 2.4 rebounds last season, helping the Aggies reach the second round of the NCAA Tournament.
New Mexico governor wants free lunch for all students K-12 – Associated Press
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham wants New Mexico to help provide school lunches without charge to all K-12 students across the state.
Lujan Grisham spokeswoman Nora Meyers Sackett confirmed Tuesday that the governor will pursue legislation when lawmakers meet in January 2023 to ensure that every student has access to free and nutritious school meals by covering the cost of breakfast and lunch for students that don’t already qualify for free or reduced-price meals.
The newly reelected Democratic governor alluded to the proposal Tuesday during a speech in Philadelphia to a convention on public health policy.
“Starting right now, no one pays for a meal in school,” Lujan Grisham said. “And this doesn’t just mean pizza slices and chocolate pudding.”
New Mexico distributed millions of meals to children free-of-charge during the outset of the coronavirus pandemic across the state’s 89 school districts, in efforts underwritten by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The new initiative backed by the governor would build on efforts to combat hunger by offsetting co-payment charges for school meals.
Sackett said more details of proposed state spending on school meals will be released in early January within the governor’s annual state spending recommendations to the Legislature. New Mexico is in the midst of a windfall in state government income linked to surging oil production, amid concern about climate impacts and gyrations in energy prices.
New Mexico has the highest rate of childhood poverty in the American West and passed a law in 2017 against so-called lunch shaming — practices that can single-out children in any way for unpaid meals at school.
The law directed schools to work directly with parents to address missed meal payments and requires that children get a healthy, balanced meal regardless of whether debts are paid on time.
New Mexico eyes overhaul of HS graduation requirements – By Morgan Lee Associated Press
High schoolers in New Mexico could one day need fewer class-unit credits to get their diploma, as state legislators began to overhaul graduation requirements Tuesday for consideration by lawmakers in early 2023.
New Mexico has gone about 20 years since the last comprehensive overhaul of high school graduation requirements, legislative officials said.
Separately, an extra $261 million might be spent each year on K-12 schools because of a possible expansion of the minimum annual instruction time next school year, according to a proposal from the state Public Education Department. It also suggested a 4% raise for teachers and school personnel at an additional annual cost of $109 million.
Democratic state Rep. Andrés Romero — who is also a high school teacher in Albuquerque — said he’ll work as the lead sponsor on the overhaul bill. Changes such as getting rid of algebra II as a graduation requirement could open up space in high school curriculums for subjects like statistics and probabilities, which are seen as increasingly relevant to college and career preparation.
In all, high school students would be required to complete 22 full-credit classes or equivalent partial-credit courses, down from current requirement of 24.
That’s still slightly higher than the national average for course requirements before high school graduation, according to Gwen Perea Warniment, director of the legislature’s oversight agency for public education.
State law would continue to require four credits for math while waiving algebra II and opening up opportunities for courses tailored more closely to college and career ambitions, including computer science.
The proposed changes would eliminate a half-credit requirement for New Mexico-specific social studies — but weave those lessons into required coursework for U.S. history.
Warniment said the drafted proposal is the culmination of two years of deliberations involving superintendents, school board members, parent-teacher associations and more.
Lawmakers are also contemplating a possible increase in the minimum number of instructional hours per academic year.
Under the proposal, a variety of school activities could count toward that time requirement, including student-teacher conferences, classwork during in-school breakfasts and up to 60 hours of professional development for teachers.
“I think I might like it,” said Republican state Sen. Craig Brandt of Rio Rancho, at a public hearing by a legislative panel. “We’re adding instructional hours but we’re actually changing the definition to make it more flexible for the (school) district on how to use those instructional hours.”
Related bill are likely to be introduced in January as legislators convene a 60-day session. Proposed changes to high school graduation requirements could take effect as soon as the 2024-25 school year.
The nonpartisan advocacy group Think New Mexico is urging the state to expand high school requirements for financial literacy as well as civics and foreign-language instruction.
Romero said lessons on personal finances are already taught more widely than many people may realize under current standards for economics instruction.
The state Council of University Presidents has cautioned in recent years that a reduction in high school class requirements, including algebra, could adversely affect college readiness and increase the need for remedial studies.
Separately, New Mexico is relaxing requirements for some high school students by eliminating the need to pass standardized tests as a way to demonstrate they’re ready to graduate, the Public Education Department announced last week.
Those changes apply to students on track to graduate in 2024. While the students still must take the tests, their scores won’t serve as a measure of whether they’re eligible to graduate.
New Mexico’s statewide graduation rate of nearly 77% in 2021 was among the lowest in the nation.
Workers at Transgender Resource Center forming a union – Austin Fisher, Source New Mexico
The people who work at the Transgender Resource Center of New Mexico no longer feel safe or comfortable talking to their managers, according to a complaint to the center’s board of directors, and they are organizing a union to try to protect the center’s future.
Since the workers started unionizing last month, the Albuquerque nonprofit’s board of directors has lost two of its members, and employees say they face retaliation and union-busting.
The union on Nov. 14 handed a letter to the Center’s Executive Director Michael Trimm seeking voluntary recognition from Trimm, Co-Founder and Executive Director of Advocacy and Development Adrien Lawyer, and two other managers.
“We seek to align ourselves with the mission and values of TGRCNM while improving the morale and workplace environment for all staff, no matter their position,” the letter, signed by eight of the nine staff members, states. “We believe that unionizing aligns with the long-held values of TGRCNM and its mission to support all transgender, nonbinary, and gender-diverse people – including its employees.”
The sign for TGRCNM in Albuquerque promises support, community and connection.
The union wrote that the center’s staff “do not have adequate representation within the workplace, which has created significant challenges that we seek to change,” and that unionization would ensure democratic representation for all staff, whether they are members or not.
Previous attempts to solve issues have failed, the union wrote, and there have been repeated violations of employment rights, trust, and staff cohesion. Unionizing is a way for staff “to assure that our rights and experience as staff are improved,” the letter states.
The center closed four days later, as Albuquerque was facing 40-degree temperatures and without any warning to community members, said Youth and Families Services Coordinator Charlie Alexander.
People do not sleep at the center but many have long-term storage bins, because when living outside, there is not a safe place to keep one’s personal belongings, Alexander said.
“We still care about our people that we serve, and we did not agree with the decision to close the center and leave our people in the cold without their belongings, without a day to gather the stuff that they need,” Alexander said, like blankets, tents, clean syringes, or food.
The union agreed to return to work on Monday for six days to provide limited services to clients before they go on a two-week-long winter break. Going back to regular job duties is not feasible right now, Alexander said.
ALLEGATIONS OF UNION-BUSTING
Since they delivered the union paperwork to Trimm, employees “have faced retaliation after retaliation,” Alexander said.
The evening after the union gave Trimm the letter, Trimm gave Alexander a verbal warning, they said. Then on Nov. 21, management “took me off a project I was doing, because it wasn’t ‘in my job description,’” Alexander said.
As of Tuesday, four union members had verbal warnings “without just cause,” Alexander said, which puts their jobs in jeopardy in the event they face any further discipline.
Management also stopped staff from collaborating with each other, Alexander said.
Education and Outreach Program Manager Stacy Fatemi said the purpose of prohibiting collaboration is “an attempt at union-busting, trying to make us more isolated from each other, so we have less contact with each other, so that our ties to each other weaken, so we have less power to go up against the decision of executive leadership.”
Emails, phone calls and text messages over the last two weeks to Trimm and Lawyer seeking comment for this story were not returned.
TWO BOARD MEMBERS GONE
The union tried to raise their concerns with the Center’s Board of Directors after “past attempts to communicate their concerns did not receive the attention they needed,” wrote Latasha Hagan, a now former board member, in an Instagram post.
They entrusted Hagan and now former board member León Powell to raise the concerns at the board’s Nov. 7 meeting.
However, the rest of the board “completely dismissed” them, Alexander said. Hagan wrote that the other board members left them out of major decisions and conversations about the union.
“It saddens me to see how far this has gone and how leadership is handling this,” Hagan wrote. “I truly hope leadership can come together and get back to helping our community.”
Facebook messages and emails to all of the other board members seeking comment for this story went unanswered.
The same day that the employees delivered the union paperwork on Nov. 14, members also submitted a complaint to the board alleging discriminatory and inappropriate behavior toward staff and program participants, unlawful and retaliatory punishments, lack of effective policy, and problems with agency and staff safety.
Hagan wrote in the Instagram post that the board held a special meeting two weeks later, and about 15 minutes into the meeting, a majority of the members voted to dismiss Hagan from the board, on the grounds that they had a conflict of interest for having “a dual relationship.”
Hagan wrote they are hurt and angered about their dismissal because they had told Trimm about the relationship when they first joined the board in July, and it had not been a problem. But the information was “used to discredit the concerns” Hagan and Powell raised on behalf of the union.
Powell verbally resigned during the meeting and turned in their resignation on Dec. 5 because they disagree with actions and decisions by board members and management, they wrote in an Instagram post.
Reached for comment, Powell said they support the union’s formation and believe the staff should have a supportive work environment that allows them to provide vital services to the most vulnerable transgender folks in their community.
After weeks of back and forth over the voluntary recognition paperwork, management finally handed over a half-complete Voluntary Recognition Notice, which the union completed and filed with the National Labor Relations Board on Dec. 3.
The union expects to begin collective bargaining negotiations on Jan. 3.
In addition to directly impacted people, the situation hurts the efforts of support for transgender, gender non-conforming, non-binary, and intersex people and “adds fuel to the fire of anti-trans violence and legislation that is threatening our very lives,” Powell wrote in the Instagram post.
“This is particularly heartbreaking because our community needs spaces like TGRCNM to succeed,” Powell wrote. “We need trans organizations that are stable, safe, prosperous, and accountable.”
Albuquerque bus fare bill deferred until early 2023 – By Lissa Knudsen, Source New Mexico
City Councilors again revised the proposal to scale back Albuquerque’s Zero Fares Pilot Program on Monday, kicking the final vote down the road until the council meets in January.
The latest proposal would allow anyone to use their government-issued ID to ride city buses for free. People who don’t have an ID will be required to either apply for a free pass or buy a ticket. Councilors will also vote to institute penalties like misdemeanor charges for anyone violating the new ordinance.
If passed, this would replace the existing “hop-on-and-go” system by requiring all riders to show a bus driver an ID, pass or ticket when boarding. It also resurrects the ticketing process, laying the groundwork for future fare collection.
At previous City Council meetings the discussion centered on public safety. On Monday, councilors in support of changing the program shifted their tone, no one referenced safety issues during the meeting, instead discussion focused on if showing an ID, pass, or ticket counted as a ‘zero fare’ program and if paratransit would be included.
Albuquerque’s public transit system is funded by a variety of sources, including federal grants and the transit GRT funds via the Mid-Region Council of Governments.
The Zero Fares Pilot Program received a one-time $3 million appropriation to establish no-cost rides on city buses in 2022. The money comes from the city’s general fund and is offset in part by previous bus fare revenues.
But the pilot project is only funded until June 30, 2023.
At this point, there has been no public discussion by the city council about establishing the Zero Fares policy as a permanent line item and no one has identified a recurring revenue stream to fund it.
Officials with the Transit Department said they are still unable to estimate future costs.
“At this point, a final decision on our future fare structure is yet to be determined. Therefore some details, including cost to implement and maintain any new system, remain unclear,” ABQ Ride spokesperson Megan Holcomb said in an email.
The transit department acknowledged that administering another new system should the measure pass would increase costs but stopped short of saying it would need additional funding because it would be pulling in fares again.
“The potential addition of a fare and/or pass will obviously add costs into the system including the need to produce and sell fare media, operate and maintain fare boxes, along with additional staffing to manage the pass distribution,” Holcomb said.
But she was quick to add that because, “there will also be revenue from those individuals that choose to pay the full fare,” future projections remain unclear.
ZERO VS FREE
Councilor Klarissa Peña inadvertently highlighted the difference between the hop-on-and-go program that exists today and is called “Zero Fares” and the proposal, which would institute “free fares.” Peña is one of the measure’s sponsors and made the motion to strike and replace all references to “free fares” in the proposal with the previous name “Zero Fares” before submitting the substitute bill for approval.
Tom Menicucci, Council analyst, explained that his understanding of the language distinction was that getting on the bus with “zero” requirements was what the Zero Fares project enabled, while getting on the bus without having to pay a fee but still having to show an ID, pass or ticket to the driver was what “free fares” indicated.
“When we scribed the bill, we had used ‘free fare’ because at the time we felt “zero fare” — the concept was you just walk on and off the bus without any any pass required or anything,” Menicucci said. “ But that’s not copyrighted nor is there any formal definition, so if the sponsors would like to use ‘zero fair,’ there’s nothing stopping them.”
Councilor Brook Basaan also reiterated the difference in the two terms.
“I was under the impression that free fares and zero fares are quite different. And that was why we really made a big deal out of passing a Zero Fares program,” Bassan said.
During public comment, Althea May Atherton, a community member and transit rider expressed concerns about the language change from free fares to zero fares.
“I find it extremely misleading to call this ‘zero fare.’ I think it’ll be damaging to our tourism industry to tell people ‘Oh, we have zero fare,’ and then have it work completely differently than it does in every other city in the country,” she said.”I’m just really kind of surprised and shocked that you all just did that substitution.”
TRANSPORTATION EQUITY
Before the Zero Fare program, transit charged people with disabilities $2 per ride and limited the number of rides they could request in a day. Based on the language in the SunVan brochure, Transit had planned to reinstate the fee after the end of the Zero Fares pilot program.
Under the substitute bill that was introduced on Monday, paratransit riders will also be able to ride for free but unlike the ABQRide patrons, they will not be able to show an ID in order to use the bus.
Peña asserted that when theTransit Department was approached about including the SunVan riders with the other riders in the new proposal Transit initially resisted because of the loss of revenue.
“Transit had stated that they would like us to take the paratransit out because they get $2 for every rider and I said, ‘No, if we’re talking zero fares, then we’re talking zero fares.’ I wanted that to include SunVan as well,” Peña said.
By limiting Zero Fares to the bus and neglecting to establish a way for paratransit riders to use the SunVan as often as they wanted — and without having to engage in a lengthy, bureaucratic application and pass process — the program afforded privileges to some riders and ignored those who are the most vulnerable, Peña asserted.
Transit Director Leslie Keener explained to Peña when questioned that the fee waiver made it into the proposal but there were federal requirements for paratransit riders to fill out an application.
“It still would include SunVan — it would be zero fare, but we are just saying that they still have to go through the SunVan application process,” Keener said. “But once they do that, and are qualified to ride SunVan, for ADA requirements, at that point, it would be a zero fare for them.”
Peña responded that she was disappointed that the new version of the bill still included SunVan riders having to engage in the application process and thus not being truly a ‘zero’ fares experience. The new bill does not address if there would still be limits on the numbers of rides paratransit riders could request in a day.
“When people are talking about barriers for people who are using paratransit, those are the same challenges. They’re the most vulnerable,” Peña said.
The final vote on the bill is now scheduled for Jan. 4, 2023.
Christmas tree sellers feel effects of New Mexico wildfire – By Alaina Mencinger Albuquerque Journal
The Monday after Thanksgiving, Deanna Trujillo stood in the bed of her truck, watching Christmas tree after Christmas tree pile up in her trailer.
There were 101 in total — Trujillo, who sells Mora-grown Christmas trees every year, has to keep careful count for her taxes. It took six men to load the trailer, sometimes throwing trees by hand and, at other times, dropping them from a forklift.
Trujillo inspected one of the trees, which had an orange patch among its green needles.
“These ones are just burned,” she said. “We might have to turn them into just rama.”
Trujillo uses the rama, or boughs, to make wreaths and leafy crosses. Her family in Mora has been in the Christmas tree business for decades — but, reeling from the damage of the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire, Trujillo wasn’t sure they’d be able to open her Albuquerque lot this year.
“The fire killed us,” Trujillo told the Albuquerque Journal. “It hurt us really bad.”
The largest recorded fire in the state’s history, the blaze burned across more than 140,000 acres of public land and almost 200,000 acres of private property in northern New Mexico.
Between Trujillo, her cousin Raúl Arellano and uncle Orlando Roybal, the family owns about 2,800 acres of land in Mora. Of that, 1,500 acres were burned.
“This used to be … how we give back. The trees were plentiful,” Trujillo said. “We could bring Christmas to Albuquerque.”
___
‘Dead halt’
Trujillo and Arellano are part of the Roybal Christmas tree dynasty. Their grandfather, Alfredo Roybal, started selling Mora Christmas trees more than 60 years ago in Texas and California. He gained acclaim when he sold three trees to the “I Love Lucy” show.
Trujillo describes the seasonal business as the “annual family fight,” although she said they always make up by the end.
“We do this for fun,” Trujillo said.
The whole family is involved. Arellano cuts trees, which Trujillo hauls to Albuquerque. Her three sons operate the Mora Christmas Tree lot in Los Ranchos.
“When you go to the lot and see the excitement, it’s unreal,” Arellano said.
They sell a variety of tree species, including blue spruce, white fir, Engelmann spruce and piñon.
Arellano, who started working the tree lot at age 10, estimates the family lost between 20,000 and 30,000 Christmas trees during the fire in a once-plentiful forest. The damage left them with just one-tenth of their original supply. And some of the remaining trees were damaged by the heat, making them unfit to sell as whole trees.
“You couldn’t see through this forest (before the fire),” Arellano said, pointing through a grove of thin, blackened trunks near his land. Located in the mountains near Holman, his property still had a cover of snow that had since melted in Mora Valley down below.
When she first returned to Mora after evacuating to Albuquerque, Trujillo said even the ground was burned, including seeds.
“The first time I was back in the county, it (the ground) was black,” Trujillo said.
A three-part soil burn severity analysis by the Forest Service Burned Area Emergency Response team found that, of the 341,735 acres burned in the fire, 54% of the soil was moderately or severely burned.
John Bartley, who owns Gascon Ranch north of Las Vegas, said his property was transformed by the fire.
“It’s night and day,” Bartley said. “We live in one of the most beautiful canyons in northern New Mexico. … You know, it’s an eyesore now.”
Bartley has been farming trees for timber and as Christmas trees since 1979 at his 4,000-acre ranch.
In the past, he could harvest between 700 and 1,000 Christmas tree per year from several plots. Every year, he sent hundreds of trees to Albuquerque.
The fire reduced his half-dozen Christmas tree plots to just one. Seventy-five percent of his property burned.
“There was one little spot to the north of our place that didn’t burn,” Bartley said. “I was able to scrounge 100 trees, and that’s it. I’m done.”
He said the fire almost put him out of business.
“It’s heartbreaking,” Bartley said. “I don’t know if we’ll ever get it back. I’m hoping we will, but I don’t know.”
David Velasquez, who got into selling trees “over a few beers” in high school 51 years ago, is originally from Mora. He sells trees out of Dave’s Evergreens in Albuquerque. He doesn’t get his trees out of Mora, however — he cuts them from a private ranch in Chama, Colorado.
“I think there might be a shortage of native New Mexican trees this year,” Velasquez said.
Arellano said he used to be able to cut 100 trees in half a day on his own property. Now, it takes three days to cut that many and he has to pay to cut trees owned by other Mora residents.
In the early afternoon, Arellano drove a bumpy path through the woods, crossing a rocky spring and crunching over a thin layer of snow to pick up a single 14-foot tree.
By Thanksgiving last year, Arellano said they had already cut about 500 trees. He’s only cut 250 so far this year.
“We’ve come to almost a dead halt compared to what they used to do,” Arellano said. ___
Waiting for aid
In September, President Joe Biden signed the Hermit’s Peak Fire Assistance Act, which provides $2.5 billion to victims of the fire. The funds, which New Mexico and tribal nation residents can apply for with a notice of loss form, are intended to cover eligible personal injury, property, business and financial losses.
In draft regulations from the Federal Emergency Management Agency published Nov. 14, the agency stated that it would be limiting compensation for lost trees to 25% of its pre-fire value unless the trees were associated with a business. The regulations are currently up for public comment until Jan. 13, and could change.
But even determining the value of burned trees could be difficult, Arellano said.
“It’s hard to put a dollar amount on trees,” Arellano said. “A tree could be worth a million dollars.”
Neither Arellano nor Trujillo has received federal compensation for their trees yet.
“This is gonna be chaos,” Arellano said. “This is our livelihood.”
Trujillo added that the Christmas tree business brings essential income to the family.
“It gets us through the winter,” Trujillo said. “This is our winter money.”
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NM or nothing
Trujillo doesn’t want to sell out-of-state trees. New Mexico-grown trees, she said, are cut closer to Christmas than imported trees from the Pacific Northwest, and stay fresher longer. And, Trujillo said, many of her repeat customers look specifically for Mora trees.
“We just can’t do out-of-state trees,” Trujillo said. “There’s no way we can sell them a tree that won’t last ’till Christmas.”
In the winter of 2020, Trujillo put up a Mora Christmas tree. It lasted so long, she said, that she decorated it for Valentine’s Day, Easter and St. Patrick’s Day until her sons finally made her throw it out.
Operating the tree business is more costly now. Rather than cutting trees from their own property, Arellano and Trujillo have to buy trees from other property owners who had less fire damage.
“They’re kind of holding us hostage right now,” Trujillo said.
A neighboring property owner, Willie Olivas, has helped Trujillo and Arellano find trees and transport them.
“We just all pull together and make it happen,” Trujillo said.
Arellano said he’s had to increase prices by $10 per tree to make up for the increased labor to find trees — as well as higher gas prices.
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Slow growth
Bartley has already requested 1,000 seedlings from the John T. Harrington Forestry Research Center to try and regrow the trees at his ranch. But, averaging a foot of growth per year, it could be almost 10 years before Bartley’s seedlings are ready to harvest.
Arellano said that he’s planning to plant new seedlings this year. The family has never had to plant before — the forest replenished by itself.
Trujillo said that the forest service has been busy reseeding the forest. It could take many years for some slower growing trees to return.
“I don’t think we’re gonna see a white fir for about 10 years,” Trujillo said. “But they do grow.”
Arellano, 57, doesn’t think his property will recover for decades.
“I’ll never see it,” Arellano said.
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‘People need their Christmas’
Arellano hefted a 16-foot tree to top off the trailer. It was one of several 10-foot-plus tall trees in the trailer, including a 13-foot special order.
The tall trees can be pricey.
“(It costs) an arm and a leg,” Trujillo said. “That’s what people in Albuquerque want.”
Despite the decreased supply, demand has not gone down at Mora Christmas Trees. “I got people coming to the lot like crazy,” Trujillo said.
She also said that running the tree lot is their time to catch up with annual customers.
They have a customer they nicknamed “Piñon Paul” because he buys the Southwestern pine every year. This year, they set aside two piñons for him.
“After years and years and years, you create those friendships,” Trujillo said.
When she was considering not opening the lot this year, Trujillo said that she received several Facebook messages from customers that convinced her to open.
“The people need their Christmas,” Arellano said.

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