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Wilderness rangers, preserving New Mexico forests

July 28, 2019
By Robert Nott | Santa Fe New Mexican

The abandoned campfire Doug Campbell found not far off of the Winsor Trail was “barely legal.”

It was also unsightly, unnecessary and unattended — sitting just past the gate leading to the wilderness section of the trail in the Santa Fe National Forest. The campsite was circled by at least a dozen large rocks, outside of which sat two very long logs.

Those who built it left trash behind too — glass, a bungee cord, burned pieces of silverware.

Campbell and a fellow wilderness ranger, Kat Deutsch, set about dismantling the site in hopes of discouraging others from using it. And then, not far away, they found another, even trashier campsite, including badly singed liquor bottles.

Dismantling and downsizing such campsites is just one of many tasks performed in the Wilderness Ranger Program, a partnership between the U.S. Forest Service’s Southwestern Region (Arizona and New Mexico) and the nonprofit New Mexico Wilderness Association. It is one of several initiatives designed to provide “on the ground” oversight of the state’s forests.

“We used to have wildlife management rangers all around the country, but that doesn’t really happen as much anymore because of a cutback in funding,” said Will Ribbans, who oversees the Wilderness Ranger program for the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance.

“It’s about being out here, being in the forests, walking the trails — how it used to be,” he said.

Wilderness rangers, preserving New Mexico forests
The Santa Fe Ski Basin is visible from Winsor Trail. Gabriela Campos/The New Mexican

The ranger teams work in eight-day shifts, often spending most of that time on multiday sojourns deep in the forest. They assess trail conditions, catalog invasive species, help visitors and backpackers out on the trail, plus inventory, disband or downsize campsites.

They also engage volunteers — including youth — in forest stewardship programs.

Most of the time, they traverse rarely or never-used trails, even finding some that nature has reclaimed. Last week, Campbell and Deutsch covered the more popular Winsor Trail as light rain from an oncoming storm fell . They found the two campsites — one of which Campbell considered barely legal because it was just about 50 feet off the closest trail.

It’s their job to inventory campsites and enter information into an app on an iPhone for data collection and analysis purposes.

Campbell, Deutsch — a North Carolina college student serving as a summer intern for the program this year — and the other Wilderness Rangers also carry saws to cut up large trees that fall over trails.

Wilderness rangers, preserving New Mexico forests
Kat Deutsch, Wilderness Ranger intern, helps dismantle a large campfire left just off the entrance to the Pecos Wilderness. The ranger program, a partnership between the Forest Service and New Mexico Wild, was created to increase wildness stewardship through trail assessment and clearing, campsite rehabilitation, public outreach and more. Gabriela Campos/The New Mexican

Finding and reporting on invasive species, such as bull thistle, is another job. Ribbans said while the rangers want to let nature “do its thing,” they also want to know the full extent of such species and what sort of impact they have on the environment.

Cleaning up and hauling out trash, if possible, is another duty. So is letting hikers know which trails may not be accessible because of flooding, snowfall or other obstacles. While it’s not the Wilderness Rangers’ job to focus on fire prevention, they report any fires, Ribbans said.

While Campbell said he’s never seen anything dangerous or unusual in the forests, he has come across human-made benches, chairs, huts and even shelves made out of wood.

He often sees elk and other nonthreatening species. He recently came upon a mountain lion burying a recent kill along one trail. He stopped long enough to figure out what to do before the cat noticed him and took off in the other direction. Campbell took a photo of the prey, a deer, half-buried nearby.

The program includes a volunteer component, in which the rangers rely on the help of one or two hardy people willing to go out on the trail for a day or two, or utilize the efforts of a group of volunteers for a specific one-day job, such as chopping up fallen trees. Next month, they will work with a band of some two dozen students from United World College outside Las Vegas, N.M., on such a project.

The program is funded with Forest Service grant money on a year-to-year basis, said Bjorn Frederickson, an acting supervisor with the Santa Fe National Forest who helped initiate the Wilderness Rangers project in 2015. The program costs $200,000 a year to cover the costs of the rangers, who work roughly May-to-September, he said.

While all parties in the project are happy with the program, he said there’s not a lot of certainty about what will happen next regarding funding. Nationally, the Forest Service’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2020 is $5.14 billion, some $800 to $900 million less than the previous year’s allocation.

“Our hope is that we can continue to provide a presence in the forest … so people can see our organizations work out there,” Frederickson said. I think the public is appreciative of seeing someone working in a professional capacity to provide direct service and contact with them.”

Sisters Storm and Darion Dorrough, who encountered Campbell and Deutsch on the Winsor Trail on Monday, agreed. Storm, who said she has been hiking the forests for about a year and a half, said it was the first time she had encountered a ranger on the trail.

“It makes me feel a lot safer to see other people around,” she said. “It’s awesome to get directional help out here, and you kind of expect to see a ranger on the trails.”

This article originally appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican.

Chaco legislation clears US House committee

July 18, 2019
KOB-TV (via the Associated Press) 

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) - Federal legislation aimed at limiting oil and gas development near a national park in New Mexico held sacred by Native Americans has been endorsed by a key congressional committee.

The House natural resources panel on Wednesday approved the Democrat-sponsored bill. A similar measure is pending in the Senate.

Tribes and environmentalists have been advocating for more protections beyond the boundaries of Chaco Culture National Historical Park, saying the region is full of culturally significant sites.

The legislation would permanently ban drilling on federal land within 10 miles (16 kilometers) of the park.

Most of the land surrounding the park belongs to the Navajo Nation or individual Navajo allotment owners. While top Navajo officials support cultural preservation, they have stopped short of asking for a drilling ban because development in the region nets substantial revenue.

This article orinally appeared on KOB.com via the Associated Press.

Latino Conservation Week aims to get locals outside, speaking up

July 22, 2019
By David Marquez | Silver City Daily Press and Independent

The New Mexico Wilderness Alliance hosted their Grapevine and Comida event at the Grapevine campground Saturday, a finale to all of the work they’ve done during Latino Conservation Week to promote the Wild and Scenic designation proposal for the Gila, Mimbres, and San Francisco rivers.

The New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, or New Mexico Wild, is a nonprofit, statewide organization that seeks to protect and restore wilderness areas in the state.

“Here, right now, the N.M. Wild’s biggest campaign is the Wild and Scenic designations for the Gila, Mimbres, and the San Francisco” rivers, said Simon Sotelo, Gila community organizer for New Mexico Wild.

Even before this week’s events, the campaign for the Wild and Scenic designation has been in the works for around five years, according to Public Lands Fellow Grecia Nuñez, who works with New Mexico Wild in Las Cruces.

“This is one of our main focuses here in southern New Mexico,” Nuñez said. “Our organization is statewide, but the Gila is a very important thing to us.”

“We are proposing the main sum of the Gila and its headwaters, as well as McKnight Canyon, which is the headwaters of the Mimbres River,” Sotelo said. “There’s also the San Francisco River, which would be the Upper San Francisco Box and the lower San Francisco.”

In order to build support for the federal designation for the rivers, the organization promotes the areas that they are working toward protecting — allowing the communities that surround them to experience those areas, and, in turn, give their support to the campaign.

“It is a community-driven proposal,” Sotelo said. “What that means is that we would like for the community to support it — which we have, we’ve gotten plenty of support.”

As of now, New Mexico Wild counts 150 small businesses, faith-based groups, some other local conservation groups, and more than 100 individuals who have sent letters of support. New Mexico Wild has also received support from the town of Hurley, the city of Bayard, and the Silver City Town Council.

Sotelo said Latino Conservation Week — a national initiative which seeks to involve the Latino demographic in decisions related to conservation — has an important role in this campaign.

“With proposing Wild and Scenic, and trying to garner support for that, we recognize that we need every voice that we can get in order to make this happen,” he said. “Let’s get these people involved, let’s get this demographic involved and introduce them to what is actually going on.”

Latino Conservation Week also extends well beyond the bounds of the New Mexico Wild campaign. It serves a larger purpose of involving Latinos in conservation discussions and decisions in their communities.

It’s “a way to encourage Hispanics, Latinos, Mexicanos — however they describe themselves — to get outdoors more, and to get them more involved in the conversation of conservation,” Sotelo said.

During the week, which started July 13 and ended the 21st, New Mexico Wild, in association with various conservancy groups, coordinated multiple events to expose the community to the wilderness areas that they are trying to protect.

They led hikes — one of which was to the Three-Mile Dwelling, a cliff dwelling located on the West Fork of the Gila River.

Another hike was led in partnership with the Southwestern New Mexico Audubon Society, where they hiked along the Mogollon Box and into a riparian corridor there.

“We were trying to educate people by saying, ‘This is an area that’s being proposed for Wild and Scenic, and these are the animals that use this corridor as habitat, or use it for their migratory habitat,’” Sotelo said.

They also invited community members to hike a portion of the Continental Divide Trail.

On Thursday, they hosted a gallery opening dedicated to showcasing the areas on which they are attempting to place a Wild and Scenic designation.

“Not every person in Silver City is able to access those easily, so we took a bunch of artists out to areas that are being proposed for Wild and Scenic, and we asked them to be inspired by what they saw,” Sotelo said. “The idea was to give a visual representation of what we are proposing for protection.”

The final event of the week was on Saturday, at the Grapevine Campground, where attendees enjoyed food, a float down the Gila and a hike, among other activities.

Nuñez was among the members who floated down the river.

“This is the last free-flowing river in New Mexico,” she said. “So to protect it, and protect riparian habitat, and the ecosystems that it supports — it’s something that is like a legacy, for future generations to be able to see this area. It might not be full of water, like some of these other Wild and Scenic rivers up in Oregon and Washington state, but in a desert, it’s such a beautiful thing to have a flowing river.”

Angel Peña, the southern director of the Conservation Lands Foundation, coordinated events for Latino Conservation Week in Las Cruces and was in Grant County for the event Saturday. From his home in Las Cruces, he said, he has seen the effects of the damming of the Rio Grande.

“Our river doesn’t flow year-round — this is the only time it flows,” Peña said. “Which makes [the Gila] so much more important, because it does flow year-round for all of these people.”

Sotelo said the Latino Conservation Week events helped in the furthering of their campaign efforts.

“I think the week was a huge success,” he said. “Not only did we get a lot of people involved in our activities, we also generated a lot of positive content for all of these proposals.”

New Mexico Wild hopes to finalize the proposal, which would be drafted into legislation, and then introduced and voted on by Congress, by early or mid-2020.

This article originally appeared in the Silver City Daily Press and Independent.

New Mexico's U.S. senators seek hearing on mining laws

By Steve Terrell | Santa Fe New Mexican
June 12, 2019

New Mexico Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich are calling for a U.S. Senate committee hearing on a bill aimed at updating laws governing mining that have been unchanged for nearly 150 years.

Their effort comes at a time when an Australian mining company is planning to to conduct exploratory drilling on Santa Fe National Forest land near Tererro, north of Pecos.

The bill Heinrich and Udall are sponsoring would introduce a new royalty rate of 5 percent to 8 percent that would put hard-rock mining on the same level as other mining industries — requiring companies to fund cleanup of their abandoned mines, obtain permits for noncasual mining operations on federal land, allow for the petition of the secretary of the interior to withdraw lands from mining, and force a review of areas that may be unsafe or inappropriate for mining.

“Mining companies, both foreign and domestic, are governed today by a law that has changed little since the actual California gold rush that gave rise to the act in the first place,” the senators said in a news release Wednesday. “America’s mining laws have remained relatively untouched since they were established by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872. This antiquated system puts most public lands at constant risk of new mining, lets industry off the hook for toxic mine cleanup, and robs the American people of royalties from mining.”

The mining industry opposes such measures. In response to a similar bill in the U.S. House, the American Exploration & Mining Association last month called the legislation “a disaster in the making for the domestic mining industry and for America.”

In a news release, the organization said such legislation “would substantially chill private-sector investment in exploring for and developing minerals on federal land and dramatically increase our already extensive reliance on foreign sources of minerals.”

The senators said the bill would protect taxpayers in the event of another toxic spill like the Gold King Mine disaster that polluted waterways in the Four Corners region in 2015.

Because of the current federal law, taxpayers have had to foot the bill for the billions of dollars in cleanup costs at abandoned hard-rock mines, which Udall and Heinrich said have polluted 40 percent of the headwaters at Western watersheds.

There is a long history of hard-rock mining corporations operating on federal public lands in New Mexico. Currently, there are dozens of active mines either in operation or in the process of getting cleaned up.

Other senators signing the letter to the leaders of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee included Democratic presidential hopefuls Kamala Harris of California, Cory Booker of New Jersey and Michael Bennet of Colorado.

New World Cobalt already has staked a claim to publicly owned minerals and wants to drill core samples in a search for metal deposits on just over 2 acres in an area that has a history of mining but is part of a forested canyon long popular for recreation.

Though lead and zinc operations closed in 1939, it took decades and millions of dollars to clean up a waste pile left by the Tererro Mine and nearby El Molino mill, where mined rock was processed.

Asked about New World Cobalt’s proposal, Udall spokeswoman Annie Orloff said, “It is a perfect example of the overall problem with our mining laws: We have an Australian company proposing to come in and mine U.S. public land in a treasured outdoor recreation area without paying any royalties, while taxpayers are still facing a multibillion-dollar liability for cleanup of abandoned mines from the past 140-plus years.”

Heinrich spokeswoman Whitney Potter said Heinrich “does not think this is an appropriate place for a mine, especially because it’s a high-use recreation area and because of the threat to water quality.”

Mark Allison, executive director of New Mexico Wild, said the pro-environment organization has requested the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department hold a public hearing on the Tererro proposal.

“It is difficult at times for communities to appreciate the need to protect certain public lands when there is no imminent threat,” he said in an email. “… We want to convene a community meeting soon to try to get people as much information as possible and to hear their concerns and questions.”

This article originally appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican.

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