Members of the Veterans of Foreign Wars Post 2182 operate the campsite and picnic area on U.S. Bureau of Land Management land along the Old Blanco Highway a few miles east of Bloomfield. Veterans use the area to recreate and have picnics. It has been used as a quiet, non-threatening space for veterans to come and relax, especially those who suffer from post-traumatic stress disorders, they said.
The VFW also rents the area -- it charges a nominal fee that helps recoup utility and clean-up costs -- for weddings, Boy Scout events, high-school graduation celebrations, local teacher organization meetings and sports team get-togethers.
James Clark, the post commander, said vandals were becoming more of a nuisance, stealing a campground refrigerator and some repair tools. He said the bathroom floor had recently had paint smeared all over it.
The VFW placed a lock on the entry gate to the site and have routinely kept it closed each winter.
The request to the BLM for help controlling vandalism and permission for a homeless veteran to live year-round at the site as a caretaker was met with a demand that the VFW relinquish control over the site until a new agreement can be reached.
"It's got to be open for everyone," said Scott
Hall wants to see the VFW activity continue at the area and believes the veterans have been good stewards. But Hall says he is bound by the BLM's obligation to protect the area and keep it open to the public.
"We put thousands of hours of manpower into making the site a place that people can enjoy, but the BLM blindsided us ... and we can't afford to meet their terms," Clark, 89, said. "I don't think they have an inkling of what our 300 members have gone through and what this tiny bit of land means to us."
Complicating matters is the Southwest Willow Flycatcher, an endangered bird species that nests in the thick vegetation bordering the San Juan River, near the campground's pavilion.
The bird, which is named for its preference for nesting in willows, confuses the campground's plentiful salt cedars and Russian olives - which are invasive species - with willow. As a result, the BLM had to designate the spot as an "area of critical environmental concern," which obligates the agency to protect the birds' riparian sanctuary.
"Ten years ago, the BLM said we couldn't use the San Juan River, which runs 100 yards behind our pavilion area because they wanted to provide a protected sanctuary for an endangered bird species," said post Quartermaster Jerry Smalley. "We said not a problem' and didn't really use the river anyway as access is overgrown with dense vegetation and (it) isn't possible to get to where our campground is. But we cordoned off the picnic area anyway to ensure we met their request."
Neither Clark nor Smalley knew exactly how the VFW originally obtained control of the land, but they insist that they have been faithful stewards of the property all these years and always willing to cooperate.
Starting in the 1980s with donations and volunteer labor, the group has added bathrooms, picnic areas, a pavilion, a ball field, a horseshoe pit, swings and a teeter-totter for kids, and 10 recreational vehicle hook-ups.
The veterans installed water and electricity lines that they maintain. They also manage two sewer tanks that must be pumped out and serviced each year.
But, after the request for help, BLM officials had other stipulations.
"They all of a sudden want us to pay them percentages and fees for use of the campsite without any control over its use, even though we have followed their guidelines, such as limiting people to two weeks at a time," said Clark, who served as a cavalry reconnaissance soldier during World War II. "Working under Gen. (George S.) Patton now seems like a cakewalk compared to our treatment by the BLM."
After a contentious meeting with the BLM three months ago, the veterans decided to contact Congressman Ben R. Luján for help, but were told there was nothing the politician, who represents New Mexico's 3rd district - the state's northern half - could do.
"His representative, Pete Valencia, basically told us it was out of their hands," Smalley said.
BLM officials insist they want to see the VFW use the area and value the veterans' decades of upkeep and site enhancement.
"The original cooperative agreement was never incorporated into our management plan, but that's not the VFW's fault," said Dave Evans, district manager for BLM's Farmington Field Office. "We are sorry the VFW has reacted as they have, but we believe an amenable solution can be found."
In an attempt to find common ground, the BLM and VFW have scheduled a meeting with Luján and San Juan County Executive Officer Kim Carpenter on March 5.
"The VFW is an important part of the San Juan County community and the work they have done benefits not only veterans, but so many in the area," said Andrew Stoddard, a representative for Luján.
Of the roughly ten options the BLM has proposed, many will require two years or more to complete. Land appraisals and surveys are necessary to determine the value of the site.
The BLM's rough estimate is that the riverfront campground will be valued near $30,000 per acre. That places the total value in the $150,000 range, which means certain agreement options are too expensive for the veterans group.
However, one option would be to lease the land to a local government entity, like San Juan County, that would, in turn, lease it to the VFW at a relatively low cost.
"This would likely be the best option for the VFW," Hall said. "It wouldn't be a financial burden to them."
For now the campground's access gate lacks the chain lock. And the homeless veteran Clark wanted to install as a winter caretaker left the state.
Clark is disheartened by the loss of the original cooperative agreement and hopes the VFW can find a better agreement soon.
"There's just no way we can keep the grounds under their conditions," he said. "It's a heck of a nice place - a lot of people use it - and we hate to have to give it up after all this time."