2014

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  • 2015 10 19 16 35 09

  • By Michael Ritterhouse, Sangre de Cristo Chronicle
    November 19, 2014

    WASHINGTON, D.C.— The Columbine-Hondo Wilderness Act, a bill introduced by U.S. Senators Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) that would designate 45,000-acre Columbine Hondo Wilderness Area near Red River as a federal wilderness area, cleared the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Thursday (Nov. 13) and now awaits passage by the full Senate.

    “We’re cautiously optimistic,” said Red River Mayor Linda Calhoun Monday (Nov. 17) about the bill’s chance of passing the full senate.
    HCH Rectangle Generic

    The bill, which has broad support from Red River and Taos County residents, would also expand the Wheeler Peak Wilderness by approximately 650 acres while modifying a boundary in order to create a loop trail accessible by mountain bikes along the Lost Lake trail from Taos Ski Valley to the East Fork trail to Red River.

    “[This] vote is a great step forward in the on-going grassroots efforts to permanently protect the Columbine-Hondo,” said Sen. Udall. “The recreation opportunities are tremendous, and a Columbine-Hondo Wilderness will provide critical protection for New Mexico’s wildlife and water resources. We’ve already seen the benefit that the Río Grande del Norte National Monument has had on the economy of Taos County, and the tourism and jobs that will follow this wilderness designation will continue to benefit New Mexicans. I am proud of our years-long collaboration with local stakeholders, who have worked tirelessly to preserve this slice of northern New Mexico into the future.”

    “It’s special places like the Columbine-Hondo that inspire us all to continue to work together to ensure our public lands are protected now and for generations to come,” said Sen. Heinrich, a member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. “New Mexicans have a deep connection to the outdoors and benefit from the recreation, wildlife, water, and tourism opportunities that wilderness provide. I want to thank the community of northern New Mexico who has worked incredibly hard to permanently protect this area. Today marks an important step toward ensuring that happens.”

    Last month, Senator Heinrich joined the Columbine-Hondo Wilderness Coalition, regional stakeholders, and local officials for a hike in the area to highlight conservation and water initiatives and growing the outdoor recreation economy. There is strong, local support for the Columbine-Hondo Wilderness Act, including from business owners, tribal leaders, ranchers, sportsmen, acequia parciantes, mountain bikers, conservationists, and others. Local residents discussed why they support permanently protecting the Columbine Hondo and what the area means to them.

    Among those joining Senator Heinrich was Bill Adkison, president of the Enchanted Circle Trout Unlimited chapter. Regarding the future of the bill in the Senate Adkison said, “ I remain cautiously optimistic that this bill (one of a dozen such wilderness actions) will be passed by the senate during the lame duck session. Fortunately, there is not great corporate interest in development that could derail the process.”

    Located in the Carson National Forest in northern New Mexico, the Columbine-Hondo has been managed as a Wilderness Study Area since 1980. The Columbine-Hondo is one of the most treasured places in the state and a key attraction for the local tourism economy. The area’s watershed serves as the headwaters for the Rio Hondo and Red River, which support local agricultural communities and ultimately flow into the Rio Grande. The Columbine-Hondo also offers some of the best hunting and fishing opportunities in the state, with high-elevation coldwater fisheries, and unparalleled habitat for elk, deer, and antelope.

  • By Michael Ritterhouse, Sangre de Cristo Chronicle
    November 19, 2014

    WASHINGTON, D.C.— The Columbine-Hondo Wilderness Act, a bill introduced by U.S. Senators Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) that would designate 45,000-acre Columbine Hondo Wilderness Area near Red River as a federal wilderness area, cleared the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Thursday (Nov. 13) and now awaits passage by the full Senate.

    “We’re cautiously optimistic,” said Red River Mayor Linda Calhoun Monday (Nov. 17) about the bill’s chance of passing the full senate.
    HCH Rectangle Generic

    The bill, which has broad support from Red River and Taos County residents, would also expand the Wheeler Peak Wilderness by approximately 650 acres while modifying a boundary in order to create a loop trail accessible by mountain bikes along the Lost Lake trail from Taos Ski Valley to the East Fork trail to Red River.

    “[This] vote is a great step forward in the on-going grassroots efforts to permanently protect the Columbine-Hondo,” said Sen. Udall. “The recreation opportunities are tremendous, and a Columbine-Hondo Wilderness will provide critical protection for New Mexico’s wildlife and water resources. We’ve already seen the benefit that the Río Grande del Norte National Monument has had on the economy of Taos County, and the tourism and jobs that will follow this wilderness designation will continue to benefit New Mexicans. I am proud of our years-long collaboration with local stakeholders, who have worked tirelessly to preserve this slice of northern New Mexico into the future.”

    “It’s special places like the Columbine-Hondo that inspire us all to continue to work together to ensure our public lands are protected now and for generations to come,” said Sen. Heinrich, a member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. “New Mexicans have a deep connection to the outdoors and benefit from the recreation, wildlife, water, and tourism opportunities that wilderness provide. I want to thank the community of northern New Mexico who has worked incredibly hard to permanently protect this area. Today marks an important step toward ensuring that happens.”

    Last month, Senator Heinrich joined the Columbine-Hondo Wilderness Coalition, regional stakeholders, and local officials for a hike in the area to highlight conservation and water initiatives and growing the outdoor recreation economy. There is strong, local support for the Columbine-Hondo Wilderness Act, including from business owners, tribal leaders, ranchers, sportsmen, acequia parciantes, mountain bikers, conservationists, and others. Local residents discussed why they support permanently protecting the Columbine Hondo and what the area means to them.

    Among those joining Senator Heinrich was Bill Adkison, president of the Enchanted Circle Trout Unlimited chapter. Regarding the future of the bill in the Senate Adkison said, “ I remain cautiously optimistic that this bill (one of a dozen such wilderness actions) will be passed by the senate during the lame duck session. Fortunately, there is not great corporate interest in development that could derail the process.”

    Located in the Carson National Forest in northern New Mexico, the Columbine-Hondo has been managed as a Wilderness Study Area since 1980. The Columbine-Hondo is one of the most treasured places in the state and a key attraction for the local tourism economy. The area’s watershed serves as the headwaters for the Rio Hondo and Red River, which support local agricultural communities and ultimately flow into the Rio Grande. The Columbine-Hondo also offers some of the best hunting and fishing opportunities in the state, with high-elevation coldwater fisheries, and unparalleled habitat for elk, deer, and antelope.

  • By Michael Ritterhouse, Sangre de Cristo Chronicle
    November 19, 2014

    WASHINGTON, D.C.— The Columbine-Hondo Wilderness Act, a bill introduced by U.S. Senators Tom Udall (D-N.M.) and Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) that would designate 45,000-acre Columbine Hondo Wilderness Area near Red River as a federal wilderness area, cleared the U.S. Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources Thursday (Nov. 13) and now awaits passage by the full Senate.

    “We’re cautiously optimistic,” said Red River Mayor Linda Calhoun Monday (Nov. 17) about the bill’s chance of passing the full senate.
    HCH Rectangle Generic

    The bill, which has broad support from Red River and Taos County residents, would also expand the Wheeler Peak Wilderness by approximately 650 acres while modifying a boundary in order to create a loop trail accessible by mountain bikes along the Lost Lake trail from Taos Ski Valley to the East Fork trail to Red River.

    “[This] vote is a great step forward in the on-going grassroots efforts to permanently protect the Columbine-Hondo,” said Sen. Udall. “The recreation opportunities are tremendous, and a Columbine-Hondo Wilderness will provide critical protection for New Mexico’s wildlife and water resources. We’ve already seen the benefit that the Río Grande del Norte National Monument has had on the economy of Taos County, and the tourism and jobs that will follow this wilderness designation will continue to benefit New Mexicans. I am proud of our years-long collaboration with local stakeholders, who have worked tirelessly to preserve this slice of northern New Mexico into the future.”

    “It’s special places like the Columbine-Hondo that inspire us all to continue to work together to ensure our public lands are protected now and for generations to come,” said Sen. Heinrich, a member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. “New Mexicans have a deep connection to the outdoors and benefit from the recreation, wildlife, water, and tourism opportunities that wilderness provide. I want to thank the community of northern New Mexico who has worked incredibly hard to permanently protect this area. Today marks an important step toward ensuring that happens.”

    Last month, Senator Heinrich joined the Columbine-Hondo Wilderness Coalition, regional stakeholders, and local officials for a hike in the area to highlight conservation and water initiatives and growing the outdoor recreation economy. There is strong, local support for the Columbine-Hondo Wilderness Act, including from business owners, tribal leaders, ranchers, sportsmen, acequia parciantes, mountain bikers, conservationists, and others. Local residents discussed why they support permanently protecting the Columbine Hondo and what the area means to them.

    Among those joining Senator Heinrich was Bill Adkison, president of the Enchanted Circle Trout Unlimited chapter. Regarding the future of the bill in the Senate Adkison said, “ I remain cautiously optimistic that this bill (one of a dozen such wilderness actions) will be passed by the senate during the lame duck session. Fortunately, there is not great corporate interest in development that could derail the process.”

    Located in the Carson National Forest in northern New Mexico, the Columbine-Hondo has been managed as a Wilderness Study Area since 1980. The Columbine-Hondo is one of the most treasured places in the state and a key attraction for the local tourism economy. The area’s watershed serves as the headwaters for the Rio Hondo and Red River, which support local agricultural communities and ultimately flow into the Rio Grande. The Columbine-Hondo also offers some of the best hunting and fishing opportunities in the state, with high-elevation coldwater fisheries, and unparalleled habitat for elk, deer, and antelope.

  • J.R. Logan, The Taos News
    Nov 22, 2014

    A bill meant to permanently establish the Columbine/Hondo Wilderness Area has made it out of committee and is expected to go to a full vote before the U.S. Senate.

    Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich are co-sponsoring legislation that would designate 45,000 acres inside the Carson National Forest as the Columbine/Hondo Wilderness Area. A companion bill has been filed in the House by Rep. Ben Ray Luján.

    The area lies north of the Rio Hondo and stretches as far as the town of Red River. The rugged section of the Sangre de Cristos boasts several peaks over 11,000 feet and is the headwaters of several rivers and streams that feed into the Rio Grande.

    The Columbine/Hondo became a “wilderness study area” in 1980, meaning it has enjoyed most protections afforded any wilderness area. However, the area has been passed over for full wilderness designation. A coalition of local outdoorsmen, conservationists and elected officials are pushing the bill with the hope of permanently protecting the area.

    Heinrich was in Taos County last month to hike in the Columbine/Hondo and bring attention to the bill. “It’s one of those really special places that defines the character of Northern New Mexico,” Heinrich told The Taos News during that hike.

    He added the broad support of locals will be key to getting the bill through Congress. A Senate vote on the bill had not been scheduled as of press time.

    The act would also convey several small parcels of land currently owned by the Forest Service to two municipalities located adjacent to the proposed wilderness area.

    Under the bill, the Forest Service would give the village of Taos Ski Valley a 4.6-acre parcel of land on which its wastewater treatment plant is located.

    Taos Ski Valley Mayor Neal King said if the village owned the lot, it would no longer have to go through the Forest Service’s drawn-out permitting requirements, which can delay improvements or expansions. The plant would still be under the oversight of state regulators.

    If approved, the bill would also give the town of Red River title to about 40 acres, including several parcels of land now occupied by Malette Park, the town cemetery and the town’s wastewater treatment plant. Those services have existed for decades on Forest Service land thanks to special use permits.

    Red River Mayor Linda Calhoun did not return a call seeking comment.

    The bill dictates that the municipalities will pay survey costs, but the land will be given by the Forest Service at no cost.

    Because the village is essentially boxed in by Forest Service land, King said finding any property on which to build public infrastructure is challenging. And even though he said land in the resort village can cost as much as $1 million an acre, he said officials there have explored the possibility of purchasing the water treatment plant parcel outright. “We’ve always said that if push comes to shove, we’ll buy it,” King said.

    That’s what at least one representative of the Forest Service said the feds would like to see.

    In November 2013, Leslie Weldon, a deputy chief with the U.S. Forest Service, gave testimony before a Senate subcommittee. Weldon said the department supported the bill’s proposal to make permanent the wilderness designation, though she did express reservations about the land transfers.

    Weldon said as a “matter of general precedent,” the agency supports these kinds of transfers only when the federal government receives “appropriate consideration” — in other words, cash.
    Both municipalities expressed support for designation (beyond the land transfers); Red River’s 2013 comprehensive plan notes it would likely be a boon because of increased recreation and tourism.

  • J.R. Logan, The Taos News
    Nov 22, 2014

    A bill meant to permanently establish the Columbine/Hondo Wilderness Area has made it out of committee and is expected to go to a full vote before the U.S. Senate.

    Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich are co-sponsoring legislation that would designate 45,000 acres inside the Carson National Forest as the Columbine/Hondo Wilderness Area. A companion bill has been filed in the House by Rep. Ben Ray Luján.

    The area lies north of the Rio Hondo and stretches as far as the town of Red River. The rugged section of the Sangre de Cristos boasts several peaks over 11,000 feet and is the headwaters of several rivers and streams that feed into the Rio Grande.

    The Columbine/Hondo became a “wilderness study area” in 1980, meaning it has enjoyed most protections afforded any wilderness area. However, the area has been passed over for full wilderness designation. A coalition of local outdoorsmen, conservationists and elected officials are pushing the bill with the hope of permanently protecting the area.

    Heinrich was in Taos County last month to hike in the Columbine/Hondo and bring attention to the bill. “It’s one of those really special places that defines the character of Northern New Mexico,” Heinrich told The Taos News during that hike.

    He added the broad support of locals will be key to getting the bill through Congress. A Senate vote on the bill had not been scheduled as of press time.

    The act would also convey several small parcels of land currently owned by the Forest Service to two municipalities located adjacent to the proposed wilderness area.

    Under the bill, the Forest Service would give the village of Taos Ski Valley a 4.6-acre parcel of land on which its wastewater treatment plant is located.

    Taos Ski Valley Mayor Neal King said if the village owned the lot, it would no longer have to go through the Forest Service’s drawn-out permitting requirements, which can delay improvements or expansions. The plant would still be under the oversight of state regulators.

    If approved, the bill would also give the town of Red River title to about 40 acres, including several parcels of land now occupied by Malette Park, the town cemetery and the town’s wastewater treatment plant. Those services have existed for decades on Forest Service land thanks to special use permits.

    Red River Mayor Linda Calhoun did not return a call seeking comment.

    The bill dictates that the municipalities will pay survey costs, but the land will be given by the Forest Service at no cost.

    Because the village is essentially boxed in by Forest Service land, King said finding any property on which to build public infrastructure is challenging. And even though he said land in the resort village can cost as much as $1 million an acre, he said officials there have explored the possibility of purchasing the water treatment plant parcel outright. “We’ve always said that if push comes to shove, we’ll buy it,” King said.

    That’s what at least one representative of the Forest Service said the feds would like to see.

    In November 2013, Leslie Weldon, a deputy chief with the U.S. Forest Service, gave testimony before a Senate subcommittee. Weldon said the department supported the bill’s proposal to make permanent the wilderness designation, though she did express reservations about the land transfers.

    Weldon said as a “matter of general precedent,” the agency supports these kinds of transfers only when the federal government receives “appropriate consideration” — in other words, cash.
    Both municipalities expressed support for designation (beyond the land transfers); Red River’s 2013 comprehensive plan notes it would likely be a boon because of increased recreation and tourism.

  • J.R. Logan, The Taos News
    Nov 22, 2014

    A bill meant to permanently establish the Columbine/Hondo Wilderness Area has made it out of committee and is expected to go to a full vote before the U.S. Senate.

    Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich are co-sponsoring legislation that would designate 45,000 acres inside the Carson National Forest as the Columbine/Hondo Wilderness Area. A companion bill has been filed in the House by Rep. Ben Ray Luján.

    The area lies north of the Rio Hondo and stretches as far as the town of Red River. The rugged section of the Sangre de Cristos boasts several peaks over 11,000 feet and is the headwaters of several rivers and streams that feed into the Rio Grande.

    The Columbine/Hondo became a “wilderness study area” in 1980, meaning it has enjoyed most protections afforded any wilderness area. However, the area has been passed over for full wilderness designation. A coalition of local outdoorsmen, conservationists and elected officials are pushing the bill with the hope of permanently protecting the area.

    Heinrich was in Taos County last month to hike in the Columbine/Hondo and bring attention to the bill. “It’s one of those really special places that defines the character of Northern New Mexico,” Heinrich told The Taos News during that hike.

    He added the broad support of locals will be key to getting the bill through Congress. A Senate vote on the bill had not been scheduled as of press time.

    The act would also convey several small parcels of land currently owned by the Forest Service to two municipalities located adjacent to the proposed wilderness area.

    Under the bill, the Forest Service would give the village of Taos Ski Valley a 4.6-acre parcel of land on which its wastewater treatment plant is located.

    Taos Ski Valley Mayor Neal King said if the village owned the lot, it would no longer have to go through the Forest Service’s drawn-out permitting requirements, which can delay improvements or expansions. The plant would still be under the oversight of state regulators.

    If approved, the bill would also give the town of Red River title to about 40 acres, including several parcels of land now occupied by Malette Park, the town cemetery and the town’s wastewater treatment plant. Those services have existed for decades on Forest Service land thanks to special use permits.

    Red River Mayor Linda Calhoun did not return a call seeking comment.

    The bill dictates that the municipalities will pay survey costs, but the land will be given by the Forest Service at no cost.

    Because the village is essentially boxed in by Forest Service land, King said finding any property on which to build public infrastructure is challenging. And even though he said land in the resort village can cost as much as $1 million an acre, he said officials there have explored the possibility of purchasing the water treatment plant parcel outright. “We’ve always said that if push comes to shove, we’ll buy it,” King said.

    That’s what at least one representative of the Forest Service said the feds would like to see.

    In November 2013, Leslie Weldon, a deputy chief with the U.S. Forest Service, gave testimony before a Senate subcommittee. Weldon said the department supported the bill’s proposal to make permanent the wilderness designation, though she did express reservations about the land transfers.

    Weldon said as a “matter of general precedent,” the agency supports these kinds of transfers only when the federal government receives “appropriate consideration” — in other words, cash.
    Both municipalities expressed support for designation (beyond the land transfers); Red River’s 2013 comprehensive plan notes it would likely be a boon because of increased recreation and tourism.

  • Please take the opportunity this season to thank conservation giant Dave Foreman for his lifelong teaching and compassionate response for providing wilderness landscape for the needs of wildlife.

    Read all about it here.

  • By Lenny Bernstein, The Washington Post
    March 4, 2014

    Congress approved its first wilderness bill since 2009 on Tuesday when the House voted unanimously to protect 32,500 acres of the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan.

    The Senate approved the bill, sponsored by Rep. Dan Benishek (R-Mich.) and Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), last June. President Obama is expected to sign it.

    Since the passage of the Wilderness Act in 1964, every Congress had designated a wilderness area as a national park or monument until 2009. Congress had since deadlocked on the issue until Tuesday, and Obama has used his authority under the 1906 Antiquities Act to protect several prized areas.

    The administration is making plans to preserve two more by executive action — the nearly 500,000-acre Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks region in New Mexico, and 1,600 acres on California’s central coast known as the Point Arena-Stornetta Public Lands.

    Sleeping Bear Dunes stretches along 35 miles of Lake Michigan’s coastline near Traverse City, on Michigan’s northern Lower Peninsula.

    According to Benishek’s office, the bill “ensures that natural features of the area will be preserved.” That includes 450-foot-high bluffs along the lake. Also protected are county roads, historical structures, access to the lake and hunting and fishing in designated areas.

  • August 5, 2014, 12:00 am
    By Laura Paskus for the Santa Fe Reporter

    With a lagging economy and a warming climate, New Mexico might be getting ready to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on dim plans to draw water from the Gila River. The state has had a decade to decide: Build diversions, canals and reservoirs to take 14,000 acre feet each year of the river’s waters; or, secure water for farmers, businesses and homes in the sparsely populated southwestern corner of New Mexico through efficiency and conservation.

    Now, with a rush of last-minute studies and contradictory results, 10 men are heading toward a vote that could change one of the West’s last wild stretches of river.

    Later this month, the appointed members of the New Mexico Interstate Stream Commission are scheduled to make that decision—sealing the fate of the river and taxpayers alike. In addition to working with neighboring states on water sharing, the commission’s role is to “investigate, protect, conserve, and develop New Mexico’s waters.”

    As water supplies dry up and demand increases across the western United States, it seems natural that New Mexico would jump at the chance to nail down new water supplies. Already, officials have spent millions of federal dollars on studies, staffers and meetings. But with the clock ticking toward an irreversible decision, important questions remain. Neither project proponents nor the state know how much the three proposed diversion projects will actually cost or how they’ll be funded.

    Uncertainty in the climate, as well as within the engineering plans, has people scratching their heads over how much water the Gila could even yield. And no one is promising they’ll actually buy the water once it’s for sale.

    The air is humid inside the gymnasium at the Cliff School, just off Highway 180 between Glenwood and Silver City. About 100 people sit on bleachers on this late July evening, while staff from the commission and the US Bureau of Reclamation fiddle with a fold-up screen and projector.

    A handful of locals stand close to the gymnasium door, but the bulk of the hoary-headed crowd seems to have come to Cliff from Silver City, a town of 10,000 that’s about 30 minutes away.

    For about an hour, people wearing “Save the Gila” T-shirts sit mostly rapt while the state’s water resource specialists wonk out over flow and water-use alternatives on the hydrologic conditions (how surface water and groundwater interact with one another); macroinvertebrate responses to diversions (how many bugs fish will find to eat if there’s less water in the river); and the (dubious) results of conservation projects the commission funded in Deming and Silver City.

    Then the commission employees relinquish their laser pointer to the feds.

    Employees from the US Bureau of Reclamation have looked at the three diversion proposals and tried to figure out how they might work and what they might cost.

    Known as the agency that has built dams for generations of farmers in 17 states, the bureau brought you the Hoover Dam, Elephant Butte Reservoir and everything in between. Its mission has expanded so that it now manages, develops and protects water—“in an environmentally and economically sound manner in the interest of the American public.”

    At the start of his talk, Jeff Riley, chief of Reclamation’s Engineering Division in Phoenix, is clear: “The Bureau of Reclamation is not trying to sway people one way or the other,” he says, “but is here to provide analysis.”

    To the casual observer, he’s talking about three ways to dam the river, though planners never use that word. Everyone talks about “diversions” and each of the three has a cumbersome name: The Gila Basin Irrigation Commission Division and Storage Project, the Southwest New Mexico Regional Water Supply Plan (also called the Deming Surface Water Division), and the Hidalgo County Off-Stream Project.

    The Gila Basin Irrigation Commission project would include two diversion structures on the river upstream of Cliff, and water would be stored underground and in 10 small farm ponds. Reclamation estimates it would cost almost $42 million to build and then $585,000 a year to operate and maintain.

    The second project would divert water from the Gila and underground, store it in off-stream reservoirs in Mogollon and Mangas creeks and then pipe it 73 miles, over the Continental Divide, to Deming. Riley says the city doesn’t mention how it would use that water and adds that there is a “massive” lack of information on the geology of the area.

    That project would cost more than $500 million to build and almost $9 million each year to operate and maintain.

    Lastly, the Hidalgo County project would include diversion, canals and storage in reservoirs off the main stem of the Gila. That project comes in at almost $235 million to build and more than $1.5 million to operate and maintain each year.

    The audience keeps interrupting Riley’s talk with questions: Who owns the land right there? What changes would occur on the landscape? Why doesn’t the Deming estimate include the electricity to pump the water? What about pathogens that could be spread in the reservoirs or ponds? Will the reservoirs be open for recreation?

    He can’t answer any of these questions. They are out of the scope of the report, says Riley. Reclamation’s only role is to analyze information it has from New Mexico.

    An older gentleman, Dutch Salmon, pipes up from the audience. “Part of why Connor suffered and died was because of poor cost benefit analysis,” he says, referring to one of the two dams Reclamation had proposed for the Gila decades ago. “So how could any of these be justified?”

    Riley shrugs and Reclamation’s natural resource economist, Steven Piper, stands from the base of the bleachers. “Yes, there is a negative net benefit,” he says of the diversion projects. Someone else asks if that’s normal for dam projects. “That depends,” he says, noting that he can only “tap dance around” the answer.

    The questions keep coming, including another one for the economist: Who can pay for the projects?

    The report includes only one page on financial feasibility: “We weren’t asked to look at the financial side,” Piper says. Without knowing how the water will be used, who will buy it and the exact cost of the projects, it’s hard to say who would actually fund their construction and maintenance. If the state ends up footing the bill, the money would likely come from the severance tax funds that pay for most of the state’s capital projects.

    The last person to take the microphone is a young, red-headed woman. If temperatures continue to rise and snowpack keeps declining, she asks, will New Mexico get all its water? Talk turns toward climate change and if it’s really possible to get 14,000 acre-feet of water from the Gila.

    But the gathering has already gone 20 minutes over its allotted time, and Anderson closes the meeting.

    Leaving the gymnasium, Salmon complains that the Interstate Stream Commission presentations glossed over problems with diversion and storage. A former commissioner himself, almost 30 years ago, he grabbed his dog and black-and-white cat, set his canoe in the river and traveled some 200 miles downstream toward Arizona. “I’ve been stuck defending the Gila ever since,” he says.

    Today, he’s slowed down by Parkinson’s, but he still attends the meetings and tries to fly fish when he can. Pointing himself out the door and into the cloudy night—rain is on the way—he says, “But don’t worry. We’ll get ‘em.”

    If it seems miraculous that the state is considering a harness for one of the Southwest’s last natural stretches of river—in an area where the population is expected to decline—it helps to remember that Western water battles are epic.

    More than 60 years ago, New Mexico was drawn into a legal fight between California and Arizona over the Colorado River. After a Supreme Court decision and an act of Congress, eventually, New Mexico was promised more Colorado River water, but only if someone in Arizona were willing to trade Colorado River water for water from the Gila or its tributary the San Francisco River.

    This isn’t water in rivers and pipes. Rather, it’s water on spreadsheets and legal documents. Even after decades, New Mexico couldn’t find a willing trader.

    Then in 2004, Congress allowed New Mexico to trade with Arizona’s Gila River Indian Community. With the passage of the Arizona Water Settlements Act, Congress gave New Mexico a deal: The state could meet water demands in Grant, Luna, Hidalgo and Catron counties through efficiency and conservation and receive $66 million in federal funding over ten years. And, New Mexico could also divert and pump the Gila’s waters and receive another $34 million and possibly another $28 million.

    Under the agreement, any water diverted from the Gila would have an extra fee tacked onto it. That exchange fee—currently about $146 per acre-foot—is set by the Central Arizona Project, a 336-mile long system of aquaducts, tunnels and pipelines that moves water from Lake Havasu on the Colorado River to southern Arizona.

    Since 2012, the federal government has already put $27 million into what’s called the New Mexico Unit Fund, which is managed by the commission. That money has gone toward salaries, studies related to the river’s hydrology and ecology, conservation projects, public meetings and engineering studies of the three diversion proposals, and isn’t available for capital costs.

    Now, the Interstate Stream Commission has just months left to tell the federal government if New Mexico will build a diversion project or a “New Mexico Unit” of the Central Arizona Project.

    Doing so would activate those extra federal funds—$34 million or maybe $62 million. But with projects ranging in cost up to $500 million, the state would need to pay the difference.

    Norman Gaume, commission director, is baffled by the current process, which began after he had retired in 2002. Crucial questions remain unanswered on the Gila, he says, including how realistic diversion plans actually are, given local geology and what he calls “flawed” engineering designs.

    Worse yet, Gaume says that some of the commission’s studies appear to “mask the impacts rather than evaluate them fairly.”

    In January, the state released a preliminary engineering report for a $348 million diversion project that would remove water from the Gila and store it in nearby arroyos. At the time, Gaume and others criticized the Bohannan Huston report for having too many engineering problems.

    Then at the end of May, a second firm called RJH Consultants Inc. sent a memo to commission staff with the results of its independent review of the report. It had found “significant technical challenges or potential fatal flaws,” including geological issues with the dam and reservoir locations. It questioned the amount of water that could realistically be diverted from the river, as opposed to the amount New Mexico would legally be allowed to take. The memo also noted that many of the cost estimates were understated or not identified.

    During the public meeting in Cliff, after one of the Interstate Stream Commission’s water resource specialists briefed the audience on the RJH memo, people grumbled about the timing of all this work. The commission has issued another work order—this time for $700,000—to Bohannan Huston.

    The due date for its revised report is mid-September. A question comes from the audience: What’s the point of that if the commission is making its decision in August?

    From his spot in the bleachers, the commission’s deputy director, Craig Roepke, tries to quell concerns about the scheduling of reports and decisions: “The commission sets its own schedule,” he says. “They don’t have to pick any of these.”

    Despite Roepke’s reassurances to the feisty audience, the commission must decide by December 31—and it’s scheduled to vote at an August 26 meeting in Albuquerque.

    Originally, the state’s decision-making process was open only to federal, state and local agencies. Then in 2007, Gov. Bill Richardson temporarily halted things by vetoing state funding for Gila Basin water development. Stakeholder groups were invited into the process, and according to Allyson Siwik, director of the nonprofit Gila Resources Information Project, they felt their voices were being heard.

    But in 2011, the local process was disbanded. Stakeholders stopped meeting regularly and, says Siwik, commission staff tightly controlled the flow of information, even to the commission.

    Today the all-male commission includes a mix of old and new faces. But almost all have a background in agriculture. One of the new commissioners is Cliff’s Topper Thorpe, who was appointed by Gov. Susana Martinez in March 2012. According to the governor’s press release, Thorpe has been a leader in water planning in the southwestern part of the state, serving as co-chairman of the Southwest New Mexico Water Planning Stakeholders Group and as chair of the Gila Basin Irrigation Commission. If that name is familiar, it’s because the basin commission proposed one of the diversion projects.

    The state’s top two water guys, both engineers, also sit on the commission. State Engineer Scott Verhines and Estevan López, the staff director, are appointed to those jobs by the governor.

    Verhines has experience with rural water projects. Before Gov. Martinez appointed him in 2011, he led the Eastern New Mexico Rural Water Authority, which oversees a project to pipe water from Ute Lake near Logan to towns like Clovis and Portales. Originally, the project was estimated to cost $200 million. Construction on that project—which is now estimated to cost more than $500 million—began in 2013.

    First appointed as director of the commission by Gov. Richardson, López stayed in the post under Martinez. Earlier this year, President Barack Obama nominated him to serve as commissioner of the US Bureau of Reclamation, but Congress has yet to confirm his nomination.

    If López is still a state worker at the end of the month, he says he’ll recommend that the Interstate Stream Commission hold off on a vote until more studies have been completed. “I’m inclined to say to take more time to wait for more studies before issuing a preliminary decision,” he tells SFR.

    Despite criticism leveled at the commission, López says its process has been transparent—and it has not only kept the public informed, it has allowed citizens and activists the chance to propose projects and recommend studies. “I know people don’t like what they’re seeing in terms of study results,” he says. He thinks some would have preferred the commission just scratch diversion off the board altogether. “That doesn’t make sense for us to do, for diversion or any other proposal,” he says. All of the proposals, including diversion, he says, need to be considered.

    He also says the decision is nuanced: Right now, the commission has 15 projects to choose from, three of which are diversion projects. It doesn’t, he says, have to choose only one project to the exclusion of others. Whichever ones are chosen will require a deeper look. The National Environmental Policy Act, for example, requires an agency to consider alternatives and also study how everything from archaeological sites to endangered species might be affected.

    “It’s not like at the end of the year, everything is set in stone,” he says. “There is still room for things to change, to evaluate the process.”

    To receive those additional millions of dollars, however, the commission must let the federal government know by the end of the year if it plans to build a “New Mexico Unit.”

    But even if a diversion project is chosen, it could be decades before any water is drawn from the Gila. “If everything went perfect, which it won’t, you could probably pull something like this off in 10 years,” says Reclamation’s Riley. “That would be the minimum.”

    The morning after the meeting in Cliff, Todd Schulke, senior staffer at the nonprofit Center for Biological Diversity, stands along the Gila in Box Canyon Campground. Cottonwoods, black willows and sycamores grace the riverbanks and an elderly couple birdwatching nearby has just spotted yellow warblers. This area alone harbors six endangered species—two birds, two fish and two snakes—and it’s also popular among campers and birders.

    Upstream, the river flows through the Gila Wilderness. Downstream from here, the river moves through irrigated fields. Freeport-McMoRan Copper & Gold Inc., which owns New Mexico’s three copper mines, owns thousands of acres of land in the area and the water rights from the Gila that go with them. According to the company’s communications director, Eric Kinneberg, most of that land is leased for grazing. And some is leased to local farmers who grow alfalfa and hay.

    In the late spring, before summer runoff pours out of the mountains, this stretch of the river can dry. During irrigation season, farmers need water from the river to irrigate their fields. By the time the Gila hits the Arizona border, it’s nothing like this lush, green landscape.

    Even though activists like Schulke and Siwik have ignited passion for the Gila across the state, they haven’t convinced New Mexico’s political leaders that the water project not only threatens the river, but might leave New Mexico’s taxpayers footing the bill for hundreds of millions of dollars.

    During this year’s Legislative session, Sen. Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe, introduced a bill directing the state to spend its federal money on conservation projects before considering diversion. At the time, Wirth was taken aback by the projected $348 million price tag—a number that has continued to climb as more people take a close look at the details.

    Talk around the Roundhouse was that even though the bill probably wouldn’t make it onto the Senate floor, it had enough votes to pass the Senate Conservation Committee. Activists packed the halls and gallery that day, but the bill failed to pass when Democratic Sens. Phil Griego, D-San Jose, and Richard Martinez, D-Española, joined Republicans to vote against it.

    During the public meeting in Cliff, someone from the audience asked Riley how far back the river would pond behind a proposed diversion just downstream from here. About a thousand feet, he estimated.

    That would still the waters of the river rippling past Schulke as he looks around to see where the canals might be dug or anchored into the cliffs above.

    “If we had a thousand miles of river like this, eh? What’s a thousand feet?” he asks, seeking shade under a cottonwood. “But we don’t have a thousand miles of river like this.”

  • By: Paul Andersen, Aspen Journalism 

    November 3, 2014

    CHACO CANYON – The roads radiating out from Chaco Canyon stretch out across mesa tops toward distant mountains. These roads, which average 30 feet wide, were highways of foot travel for people who had neither the wheel nor the horse.

    The Chacoans built their roads over a thousand years ago to bring people to their great houses for ceremonial rites and community gatherings. These roads also enabled the Chacoans to haul timbers for construction, bringing enormous logs hefted by human labor from the Chuska Mountains, 50 miles away.

    Today, these roads are intersected with access routes to drill rigs as the oil and gas industry penetrates the Southwest and explores energy resources where ancient footprints still mark the ground.

    I visited Chaco Canyon for the first time two weeks ago and was awed by the scope and scale of this ancient place of communion, trade and spirituality. The Great Houses are testimonials to the ingenious engineering and labor of stone-age people who stacked rock with artistic flare and structural integrity.

    Read more here.

  • By: Paul Andersen, Aspen Journalism 

    November 3, 2014

    CHACO CANYON – The roads radiating out from Chaco Canyon stretch out across mesa tops toward distant mountains. These roads, which average 30 feet wide, were highways of foot travel for people who had neither the wheel nor the horse.

    The Chacoans built their roads over a thousand years ago to bring people to their great houses for ceremonial rites and community gatherings. These roads also enabled the Chacoans to haul timbers for construction, bringing enormous logs hefted by human labor from the Chuska Mountains, 50 miles away.

    Today, these roads are intersected with access routes to drill rigs as the oil and gas industry penetrates the Southwest and explores energy resources where ancient footprints still mark the ground.

    I visited Chaco Canyon for the first time two weeks ago and was awed by the scope and scale of this ancient place of communion, trade and spirituality. The Great Houses are testimonials to the ingenious engineering and labor of stone-age people who stacked rock with artistic flare and structural integrity.

    Read more here.

  • By: Paul Andersen, Aspen Journalism 

    November 3, 2014

    CHACO CANYON – The roads radiating out from Chaco Canyon stretch out across mesa tops toward distant mountains. These roads, which average 30 feet wide, were highways of foot travel for people who had neither the wheel nor the horse.

    The Chacoans built their roads over a thousand years ago to bring people to their great houses for ceremonial rites and community gatherings. These roads also enabled the Chacoans to haul timbers for construction, bringing enormous logs hefted by human labor from the Chuska Mountains, 50 miles away.

    Today, these roads are intersected with access routes to drill rigs as the oil and gas industry penetrates the Southwest and explores energy resources where ancient footprints still mark the ground.

    I visited Chaco Canyon for the first time two weeks ago and was awed by the scope and scale of this ancient place of communion, trade and spirituality. The Great Houses are testimonials to the ingenious engineering and labor of stone-age people who stacked rock with artistic flare and structural integrity.

    Read more here.

  • This week on Earth Matters, co-host Nathan Newcomer interviews Claire Catlett of GRIP / Gila Resources Information Project and Donna Stevens, Executive Director of UGWA / Upper Gila Watershed Alliance. Both have primary roles in the organization and presentation of the 10th Annual Gila River Festival: Celebrating America’s First Wilderness River.

    Listen Now.

  • In this week’s installment, Earth Matters co-host Donna Stevens of the Upper Gila Watershed Alliance interviews Executive Director Mark Allison and Gila Grassroots Article Organizer Nathan Newcomer.

    They discuss NM Wild’s mission, projects and goals, the significance and benefits of wilderness areas, and the criteria and process whereby wild landscapes obtain designation as wilderness areas and national monuments. Newcomer sets the record straight on the many misconceptions about activities prohibited and permitted in wilderness areas.

    Listen here

  • In this week’s edition of Earth Matters Nathan Newcomer interviews Judy Calman – staff attorney for New Mexico Wilderness Alliance. They discuss the importance of having a staff attorney working for a small conservation organization, in addition to the recent attention Gov. Susanna Martinez is receiving after supporting the possibility of selling off our public land in New Mexico.

    They also discuss other issues within New Mexico including the new National Monuments designated in the state, as well as all of the resource management plans that are available to public comment right now, and ones that are soon to come.

    Listen now.

  • Why does wilderness call to us? Perhaps the need for wildness is hard-wired in each of us, whether we heed the call or not. If anyone would know, it’s New Mexico native son, writer and conservationist Dave Foreman.

    Foreman returns to the Gila River Festival this year to speak about the intrinsic value of wilderness, America’s first wilderness river, and the history of the Gila Wilderness Area. For decades, Foreman has been at the forefront of environmental activism. For several years in the 1970s, he worked for the Wilderness Society, but eventually became disillusioned. With some friends, he started the group Earth First! and edited the Earth First! Journal for a few years. He co-founded the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, and later started his own think tank, the Rewilding Institute.

    Foreman is the author of several books, including Take Back Conservation, Rewilding North America, and Confessions of An Eco-Warrior. He serves as the director of the Rewilding Institute, a nonprofit working to develop and promote the ideas and strategies to advance continental-scale conservation in North America, particularly the need for large carnivores and a permeable landscape for their movement.

    Listen now.

  • Earth Matters co-producer Allyson Siwik of Gila Resources Information Project / Gila Conservation Coalition is joined by Todd Schulke, co- founder and senior staff with the Center for Biological Diversityand a partner in the Gila Conservation Coalition to discuss the November 24 vote by the Interstate Stream Commission to move forward with a Gila River diversion project under the Arizona Water Settlements Act.

    Listen here.

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