Saving What Is Left of Jicarilla

Published March 1, 2003

According to a recent assay report, $20 million in fine gold lies beneath the ground on a few acres at Jicarilla, New Mexico. Miner Jerry Fennell owns the mining claims, and for about 30 years he has made a living and raised a family by panning the dry gulch and working a swimming pool-size pit behind his home with a pick and shovel. Fennell has no bulldozers or dump trucks. A wheelbarrow and a gentle burro appropriately named “Dusty” haul most of the ore.

His operation is small by design and philosophy. “I keep it that way because I don’t want to disturb the land more than I have to. I just take enough gold to get by. I don’t use any chemicals and durn little water.” There is no natural source of water nearby, so Fennell has to haul in all he uses with an aging pickup truck.

Those days of “just getting by” soon will be over for Jerry Fennell if the U.S. Forest Service has its way.

According to Fennell, he recently received a letter from the Lincoln National Forest office saying he will be “charged with trespass” unless he files paperwork he says will put him out of business. “Once I file the paper (a plan of operation), the Forest Service will impose such a huge reclamation bond that I won’t be able to afford it. I have watched them do it to my neighbors. They are all gone now. I am the last miner in the Jicarilla Mountains.”

Mining a Way of Life

Miners have worked the Jicarillas for centuries, and governments pushing them from their lands are not new. Spanish records show the Mescalero and Jicarilla Apaches dug turquoise in the remote mountains in 1598. The Spanish, and later the Mexicans, enslaved the Indians as labor to mine and separate the gold from the dirt in a wooden bowl called a “batea.”

After the Republic of Texas defeated Mexico, Texans dug for the precious metal from about 1820 to 1850. When the area became part of the Territory of New Mexico, the U.S. Army forcibly removed the Apache to reservations in 1864.

Prospecting for the lode deposits by American miners began in the 1880s. The town of Jicarilla grew up around the claims and had a schoolhouse, a general store, and a population of some 300 during the early 1930s. Jicarilla lasted until about 1942.

End of an Era

Today, buildings that were formerly the store, post office, schoolhouse, and church remain. Fennell’s home is the old general store. According to Fennell, the congregation of the Jicarilla Mountain Community Church used the old schoolhouse as a chapel until the U.S. Forest Service padlocked it and posted a sign reading, “All persons are prohibited under penalty of the law from committing any trespass.”

Fennell produces an envelope stuffed with well-thumbed documents he has gathered over the past few years. “Look at this,” he says as he shows a record from the pile. “This building has been used as a church since the thirties. How can the Forest Service just padlock and post it?”

He said he has repeatedly asked the Forest Service to prove they even own the land on which his claim is located. “All they have provided is a copy of an Executive Order signed by President Woodrow Wilson that indicates certain lands must be taken to connect the Lincoln National Forest to another National Forest. As best as I can determine through my research, this land may not even belong to the Forest Service.”

Indeed, the title trail is incredibly convoluted. In addition to ownership by Spain, Mexico, and the Republic of Texas, Jicarilla has been part of three New Mexico counties over the past hundred years as political borders were shifted. The Lincoln County Tax Assessor’s office stated: “There is really no way to know where all the records for Jicarilla are located.”

A Right to His Claim

Lincoln National Forest Supervisor Jose Martinez, speaking from his office in Alamogordo, New Mexico, said the Forest Service didn’t know what to do about the Jicarilla Mountain Community Church situation. “We have the lawyers working on it,” he said. Asked if the Forest Service could be mistaken about its ownership of the tiny community, Martinez stated they were sure of their title. He further said: “Fennell could be charged if he did not file a plan of operation.”

Lincoln National Forest Ranger Jerry Hawks stated in an interview that “Fennell has a legal right to his claim, but he is illegally occupying cabins that are on National Forest lands.” Fennell counters by producing 1999 documentation from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals that states miners can live on their claims if they can produce possessory title and vested rights for structures and equipment. Fennell does have tax records showing he has paid taxes on the structures and equipment for years.

Fennell’s troubles have begun to attract public attention in Lincoln County, an area that has seen much of its history bulldozed by federal land agencies. Publisher Ruth Hammond and reporter Doris Cherry of the Lincoln County News believe Jicarilla needs to be saved. “The Forest Service has destroyed too many of our historic buildings. Many of our residents have family who worked and are buried there. Our newspaper is going to work to save what is left of Jicarilla.”

Fennell sits glumly on the steps of the Jicarilla Mountain Community Church and points to the U.S. Forest Service padlock and sign. “For years I have watched and cared for this building and the others. If the Forest Service pushes me out, in a couple of weeks what is left of this little village will be vandalized or bulldozed and burned by the feds.” He pauses and looks sadly over what has been his home for decades, clears his throat and says quietly, “You know, it ain’t the gold that has me reared up and fighting back. It is the saving of this place for our kids and grandkids. I’d hate to see it destroyed.”

J. Zane Walley is an editor for the Paragon Foundation News Service.