A previous version of this story incorrectly reported that the Fryes’ attorney Lisa Cummings did not respond to Marcus Montoya's request for mediation. This version has been updated.
A U.S. Forest Service Road in Ojo Caliente is at the center of a yearslong controversy between private property owners and community activists who say they are fighting for access to public lands.
The road cuts across a roughly 160-acre parcel owned by Steven and Millie Frye, who bought it in 2007 and moved there in 2008. It is surrounded by public lands, and the majority of it is in Rio Arriba County, with a small sliver in neighboring Taos County.
The couple decided to install gates at both ends of the road in late 2015, blocking access to the less-than-one-mile stretch that cuts across the northwest corner of their property after multiple incidents of people shooting guns near their home, along with other behavior they consider offensive.
“We’ve had problems and they began accelerating with people coming out shooting in the middle of the night, in the middle of the day even, when the road was open,” Steven Frye said. “It is only about 100 yards from the front door.”
This short length of road is part of Forest Service Road 556 and has been used to access public lands for over a hundred years, Ojo Caliente resident Betty Haagenstad said.
She, her husband Harvey Haagenstad, Tim Viereck and Erminio Martinez piled into a tan 1989 Isuzu Trooper to take the bumpy ride to the two gates installed by the Fryes.
As they stood by the western gate closing the road on a late afternoon in July, Betty Haagenstad said she has lived in Ojo Caliente for about 40 years and had used the road for just as long.
The road is used to get to places where people pick traditional medicinal herbs, gather firewood, access grazing lands and for people like the Haagenstads and Viereck who enjoy visiting and cataloging archaeological sites in the area.
The group has been organizing and contacting public officials in both counties about the gate and trying to get it removed over the last four years.
Martinez said his research indicates the road has been in use since the Chile Line was built in the 1800s, before New Mexico became a state in 1912.
It is a historical road used by generations of family members, he said.
“It’s got to have some legal validity,” Martinez said. “The closure of that road, to me, it’s not legally proper to close that road. They’re depriving the public. It is a public piece of land. It belongs to you and me.”
Carson National Forest West Zone Deputy District Ranger Angie Krall said there were multiple 160-acre homesteads in the Ojo Caliente area, but many of them failed and were reverted back to the federal government.
The area has very little water, which made building and growing things there difficult, she said.
Krall and Carson National Forest West Zone District Ranger Jeremy Marshall both said it is possible the road existed before the creation of the Forest Service in 1905.
Steven Frye said the property was deeded by President Calvin Coolidge, and has been privately owned ever since.
He said when they moved to the property, he and his wife put a fence around the property because they wanted to have horses.
The U.S. Forest Service then installed the cattle guards, after doing a National Environmental Policy Act study, Frye said.
Steven Frye emailed Carson National Forest Natural Resources Staff Officer Furr multiple times in 2015 and 2016 about the installing the gates.
“I have decided, reluctantly, to close the section of Forest Road 556 that crosses my property in the Tres Piedras Ranger District,” Steven Frye wrote July 15, 2015. “Last night was the final straw as a vehicle was spotlighting on my property and shooting guns in the middle of the night.”
He contacted the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, New Mexico State Police and the Rio Arriba County Sheriff’s Office about the issue, but did not receive any assistance.
The couple has dealt with other issues, too.
Millie Frye said before the gates were installed, she came home to find a truck parked on the road with music blaring and a man walking toward the house.
They think he got spooked and turned around when he realized she got home, Steven Frye said.
“As a final (middle) finger to us, he decided to stay there and have a party,” Steven Frye said.
Steven Frye said while minor, there are other actions of people using public lands that are indicative of peoples’ attitudes toward them.
“Out of the whole forest they decided they were going to stop right in front of our house, get out, play with the dog,” he said. “The lady threw a piss. We were on the porch.”
Steven Frye said after they installed the gates, people attempted to shoot at it.
“I found three shotgun holes and three casings from an AR-15 where they had shot,” he said.
In his response to Steven Frye’s email stating he planned to install the gates, Furr wrote in a July 20, 2015 email the decision was “very disappointing from (his) standpoint” for multiple reasons, including the use of Forest Service resources to install the now unnecessary cattle guards and “other resource issues and escalation that closing the road could cause.”
“Having said all that, it’s certainly your property and your decision,” Furr wrote.
Marshall said resource issues and escalation refers to the ability for people to go onto public lands to collect things like firewood or access rangelands and when roads close, it often creates conflicts within the community.
Seven months later, on Feb. 25, 2016, Furr wrote an email to Steven Frye stating people in the community were upset about the road closure.
“I had a meeting with permitees this week, and have a meeting with concerned Ojo citizens next week, and have fielded dozens of calls,” Furr wrote. “People are talking a lot about a prescriptive easement, but that doesn’t involve us.”
Once the road cutting through the Frye’s property was closed, people driving through the area bypassed his property by creating a new road along the property’s north side.
Driving east, a person will get to the first of two gates on the Fryes’ property and are forced to take a left at the fork. They will then arrive at a 90-degree right turn. After traveling for a little bit more than half-a-mile, vehicles must make another 90-degree right turn to get back onto Forest Road 556.
The 90-degree turns make it very difficult to bring trailers into the area and to access grazing areas, Martinez said. It has caused damage to his own truck and trailer.
“We need to get across a message to (Taos County Manager Brent Jaramillo) and to the (Taos County Board of Commissioners) that we are livestock permittees here and we have been after them a long, long time to be able to address this, along with the Forest Service,” Martinez said.
Marshall confirmed Martinez is a Forest Service allotment permittee in the Cierro Azul area near Ojo Caliente.
Jaramillo did not return phone calls by press time inquiring about the passage of resolution in support of community access.
It can also be a safety issue to people and cattle, he said.
If someone is injured in an area past the Fryes’ property, it could be difficult to get an emergency vehicle to the area, he said. If a cow that just gave birth or an injured animal needs to be removed, they could also be very difficult to access.
The group has received support from the Rio Arriba County Board of Commissioners.
The Commission passed a resolution June 25 in support of continued public access on Forest Road 556.
“The Rio Arriba County Commission hereby declares its support for the residents of Ojo Caliente and the general public who has occasion to have used Forest Road 556, and requests that the United States Forest Service take steps to remove the locked gates from Forest Road 556 and restore historic access to the resides of Ojo Caliente and the general public,” the resolution states.
The gates are for the benefit of one landowner, which is unreasonable, the resolution also states.
While the Rio Arriba County Commission passed the resolution in support of public access to the road in less than two months, it has been much slower on the Taos County side of things, Martinez said.
He said he has brought copies of the resolution drafted by Rio Arriba County Attorney Adán Trujillo to Taos County officials, but they have not discussed it at a public meeting.
“I really need to see what is going on, on the ground,” Taos County Board of Commissioners Member Candyce O’Donnell said about the situation.
She said she wants to see how the road closure inconveniences people who access these lands and if the road currently being used is impassable by vehicles or trailers.
The majority of the Frye’s property is in Rio Arriba County, not Taos County, and one possible option could be developing a memorandum of understanding between the two counties to come up with a solution, she said.
She said she plans to make a visit to the property at the beginning of August.
Martinez said he is also planning a visit with representatives of the New Mexico Attorney General’s Office.
Since the closure, Steven Frye said he has received several harassing letters from the Eighth Judicial District Attorney’s Office.
The couple received a letter dated Feb. 2, 2016 from District Attorney Donald Gallegos stating the he believes there is sufficient evidence the portion Forest Road 556 that runs through their property is a public road and the gate installation may be in violation of state statute. He also requested they remove the gate.
They received another letter dated April 8, 2018 from Chief Deputy District Attorney Ron Olsen asking to meet with them to discuss the situation.
He said he had reviewed previous correspondence between the Fryes and the District Attorney’s Office and had also been approached by people impacted by the closure.
“I am also concerned that your reliance on prior (Forest Ranger Chris Furr’s) suggestion you had the right to put up gates on your property is misplaced,” Olsen wrote. “His suggestion fails to recognize established New Mexico law expanding the statutory definition of a public road.”
Assistant District Attorney Marcus Montoya wrote a letter dated May 17 to the Fryes’ attorney Lisa Cummings.
It asks the Fryes to enter into mediation talks about the road, and that he needed a response by June 17.
Montoya said in a July 22 telephone interview that Cummings responded to him, but only to say her clients were not interested in mediation.
He said mediation would be a great place to start in order to avoid litigation and bogging down anyone with legal fees.
“It is better when everyone is content and had their input and is listened to and we don’t have to fight,” he said.
Marshall said he wants to work with all parties involved to solve this situation, but he has not been able to reach the Fryes despite multiple tries at contacting them.
While the road is considered a Forest Service Road, it runs on private property and he is 99 percent sure that Forest Service never purchased the easement, he said.
The road should not be thought of as Forest Service road on private property, just that there happens to be a Forest Service road that goes through a person’s private property, Marshall said.
Forest Road 556 still appears as open on the Forest Service map, he said, but the document is not updated very often due to a lack of funding.
While he said he cannot remember the last time the Forest Service did any improvements to the road such as grading, he said he is sure it was done in the past.
Betty Haagenstad and Martinez said this proves the road is public because it has been taken care of by the Forest Service.
Steven Frye said he wants the Forest Service to step up and fix the problem.
“Honestly, my ideal solution would be (the) Forest Service cough up some money and straighten this out,” he said.
Before he closed the gate, Frye offered to keep the road open until the Forest Service built a new road for people to use, a July 20, 2015 email states.
Furr wrote back saying that the funds to build the road would be “very difficult to come by.”
Frye said he also offered to pay to someone to take out the sharp turns in the road made to bypass his property, but was told by Forest Service representatives this was not allowed.
Martinez said they will do whatever they must to get the gates removed.
“I don’t care either way,” he said. “Either we resolve it through compromise of some sort or we go to court. It is that simple. It will solve it some way or another. It’s got to.”