Gunshots have become a significant part of the soundscape around El Guique and Estaca.
Despite residents’ protests, Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s deputies and others use the Cook family’s gravel mine on the border of the two communities as a gun range.
The constant noise disturbs the surrounding families and their animals, but because the shooting is happening on private property, they have little recourse.
“Nobody wants to come home on Friday afternoon and you’re outside and all you do is hear gunshots,” said Patrick Herrera, who lives across from the mine. “It’s disturbing. You’re outside working on Saturday, gunshots. You’re out on Sunday doing stuff around the house and getting ready for the week, and gunshots. And not just a couple. I mean a good hundred plus or better.”
Nancy O’Bryan, a resident of Estaca, said the gunshots make it harder for her to enjoy the area around her house.
“I have a lovely patio outside and I like to sit out there on a nice fall day, but it’s ruined when I hear shooting,” she said.
At the beginning of March, Herrera’s dog died trying to hide from the sound.
“She died of anxiety from the gunshots,” he said. “Every time they would shoot she would pee the ground, she would shiver.”
The Herrera family had gone to a basketball tournament on a Saturday night. When they left, they heard the shooting.
The next morning, Herrera found the dog dead beneath the sheep feeder.
“She was scratching to try and dig herself into a hole in the earth,” he said.
In 2018, because of residents’ concerns, County Manager Tomas Campos sent Española Mercantile Company President and Chief Executive Officer Katharine Cook Fishman, who owns part of the mine, a request to cease consenting to the firing of weapons on the property.
“We are aware of the long standing use of this operation as our very own deputies from the Sheriff’s Department target practice at the site, however we feel this use is in violation as we find no conditional or special use permit issued by the Planning and Zoning Department,” Campos wrote.
But the shooting did not stop.
Herrera said that Española Transit Mix Senior Vice President Ignacio Lucero, who works directly under Cook Fishman, told Herrera that Cook Fishman’s sister, Kelly Armstrong, owns the section of the mine where the deputies are practicing their shots.
Armstrong apparently ignored Campos’ request, Herrera said.
He has seen employees of Cook’s Home Center, which Armstrong owns, driving into the mine to shoot, he said.
Lucero did not return a phone call asking about the range and the mine, and neither Armstrong nor Cook Fishman could be reached for comment.
It is unclear whether the range really is in violation of County code.
County Planning and Zoning Committee Vice President Leonard Valerio said property owners only need a license to operate a shooting range if they are charging people to fire on their land.
But if they are not operating it as a business, they do not need a permit, he said.
New Mexico Game and Fish Communications Director Tristanna Bickford said in a Sept. 30 phone call that at the state level people do not need a permit to operate a shooting range on private property.
Residents have also tried to approach County Sheriff James Lujan about the gun range.
He told Herrera that the gunshots sound “just like firecrackers,” Herrera said.
In a Sept. 30 phone call, Lujan said only, “I don’t talk to you guys,” when asked about the gun range.
The presence of the mine in the communities has been controversial for other reasons as well.
In 2018, residents unsuccessfully protested a proposed expansion of the mine, citing damaged roadways, flooding, dust and sediment overflow into acequias––concerns that live on today.
“The community of Estaca has endured endless dust and noise, a gun range, flooding, and tumbleweed drifts from the mine,” O’Bryan wrote in a Sept. 30 email.