AP - LOS ALAMOS — Congress has approved $10 million to compensate Hispanic homesteaders whose land on the Pajarito Plateau was taken for a top-secret government project that grew into Los Alamos National Laboratory.
All but a handful of the homesteaders have died since the World War II Manhattan Project that used their land, but their heirs have battled the federal government for years. The government has denied taking land illegally, but has acknowledged that Hispanic homesteaders were not paid as much for their property as others were and that they did not have legal representation.
The Pajarito Plateau Homesteaders Compensation Fund was part of a massive spending package Congress approved Saturday and sent to President Bush. "I feel good about it, but it's still going to be a long process," said Peter Gomez, 59, of El Rancho, whose grandfather, Elfego Gomez, farmed and raised cattle on the plateau until the government took the land in the 1940s.
"They were so brokenhearted that they never spoke about it after it happened," Peter Gomez said of his grandparents. Sens. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., and Pete Domenici, R-N.M., who pushed for a compensation program, have said Los Alamos Ranch School, a prep school on the plateau, received $367,000 for its land —the bulk of $414,000 appropriated in the 1940s to buy property for the lab. The school received $225 per acre; Hispanic homesteaders got $7 to $15 an acre, the senators said.
The compensation fund is supposed to make up for what homesteaders should have been paid, plus interest. "We're very pleased and we're starting to draw up the paperwork right way," Santa Fe attorney Gene Gallegos, who represents families, said Monday. "So many of these people are so elderly, we're going to try to expedite the process."
He said he hoped claimants could receive checks next year. A settlement agreement and other matters still must be established in federal court. Families must gather old deeds, affidavits or wills to document the tract of land and their kinship to the homesteaders. Claims must be validated, and the court must determine the settlement to be reasonable and fair.
The exact number of claimants is not known. The final number will depend on how many people respond to notices and how many claims are accepted.