Forming a Watershed Coalition in the Peñasco/Emudo area

By KAY MATTHEWS

Are the Peñasco area communities ready to join together to replicate the successful watershed coalition of our neighbors to the north? Stakeholders met on May 14 to discuss the possibility and managed to avoid the internecine arguments that often arise when we all get together as representatives of different constituencies with different agendas. The meeting was facilitated by J.R. Logan, who is Coordinator of the Taos Valley Watershed Coalition and board member of the Cerro Negro Forest Council (that manages contract stewardship blocks on the Questa Ranger District, see December 2018 La Jicarita issue); the consensus was yes, let’s work together to protect our watersheds, forests, and communities. Some background on the development and purpose of the Taos Valley Watershed Coalition will help readers get a better of idea of what we’re trying to set up (I’m using “we” here as I’m a member of the Rio de las Trampas Forest Council, which is a partner in the proposed coalition).

The Taos Valley Watershed Coalition, which incorporates the watersheds from Rio Grande del Rancho, on the south, to San Cristobal Creek on the north, has been up and running since 2014-15. As its mission statement says, the purpose of the coalition is to “Protect, improve, and restore the water quality, quantity, and ecological function of the forests and streams in the Rio Grande watershed within Taos County to the benefit of both local and downstream beneficiaries of the water supply arising from these watersheds.”

The partners are many: government agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service, the County and Town of Taos, the NM Game and Fish Department, and NM State Forestry; Firewise Communities throughout the area; Taos Pueblo; Taos Ski Valley; and non-profits including Trout Unlimited, the NM Wildlife Federation, and The Nature Conservancy, whose Rio Grande Water Fund is supplying much of the funding to do the environmental assessments and on-the-ground restoration work.

The coalition has a Landscape Restoration Strategy to implement projects that “increase forest and watershed resilience, where mega-fires and insects threaten long term impairment to ecological function.” Using data collated from The Nature Conservancy and the U.S. Forest Service, the coalition identified these strategies to guide their work:

  • Restore fire to frequent-fire forest types—ponderosa pine and some piñon-juniper mixed conifer—with mechanical thinning, controlled burns, and natural fire ignitions when and where it is safe to do so.
  • Adaptively manage dry-mixed-conifer forests of ponderosa pine and Douglas fir.
  • Use the U.S. Forest Service research report, Restoring Composition and Structure in Southwestern Frequency Fire Forests to guide landscape management (and other restoration principles).
  • Learn more about the wet-mixed-conifer forests and history of fire in order to determine how to best restore and adaptively manage this forest type.
  • Research aspen patterns in spruce-fir forest types in order to better manage size and distribution.
  • Manage natural landscaping to break up fuel continuity.

The coalition then worked to identify priority places for restoration, integrating activities currently underway on federal and non-federal lands to achieve better funding leverage. The following areas were identified as top priorities:

Pueblo Ridge

This is the area that lies between Taos Pueblo’s Encebado Fire scar, where 7,000 acres are in open canopy condition, and the La Jara treatments on Carson National Forest that run through Capulin Canyon and lower Taos Canyon. Wildland/Urban Interface areas within Taos Canyon have recently been treated to remove fuels and offer a buffer for future fire management within Pueblo Ridge. Both sides of the ridge are appropriate for restoration (on the north side much of the land is within the boundary of the Blue Lake Wilderness) that will improve lands within the Rio Pueblo and Rio Fernando watersheds. Funding is being leveraged to begin the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) clearances on the Pueblo and to complete surveys on the Carson. (The Forest Service just released the preliminary environmental assessment requesting input on treatment of 9,709 acres on the north side of the canyon.) In total, 23,000 acres are planned for restoration work.

El Salto Restoration

This area includes lands between El Salto and Taos Pueblo. There are three treatment blocks within the project area:

  • Waterfall Treatment Block is upslope and east of El Salto Road, bordering the Wheeler Peak Wilderness Area. The goal is to use chainsaw thinning and landscape features to create a heterogeneous pattern.
  • Cañoncito Treatment Block runs east and west and is adjacent to the Pueblo on the southern border. Mechanical thinning and pile burning is planned to provide a buffer for managed fire on the Blue Lake Wilderness.
  • Lucero Peak Treatment Block comprises the upper reaches of the El Salto de Agua Land Association’s working forest and will provide fire protection and fuelwood.

Rio Hondo Corridor

This is the narrow corridor along the Rio Hondo to the Taos Ski Valley that provides water to the Village of Taos Ski Valley, the mutual domestic water systems in Valdez, Arroyo Seco and Arroyo Hondo, and to the downstream acequias. The NEPA work has been done but this project has been listed as a secondary project to Pueblo Ridge and El Salto. Restoration work will include thinning, aspen management, and the reduction of fuels from the campgrounds that extend throughout the canyon (2,000 proposed acres).

McGaffey Ridge

This area is in the southwest corner of the project area near Pot Creek. Comprised of predominantly ponderosa pine, it will be treated with mechanical thinning and fire to act as a buffer to the communities of Pot Creek and anchor the entire Landscape Restoration Strategy (32,000 acres proposed). Wildland/Urban Interface work has already been done in the community.

In total, approximately 66,000 acres are slated for treatment by the coalition, including the 9,000 acres on the Kiowa-San Cristobal restoration area. Between 2015 and 2018, approximately 1,091 acres have been thinned, 193 acres prescription burned, and 525 acres managed burned (the McGaffey Fire). A total of $2,250,305 funding has been leveraged for all the projects, including the Cerro Negro Forest Council.

Map of the Taos Valley Watershed Coalition project areas.

. . . . . . . .

Much of the discussion at the Peñasco May 14 meeting centered around the fact that forming a coalition is the best way to leverage funding for the on-the ground-work. Logan told the group that there are three important funding sources that will be critical to a functioning Peñasco coalition: the Rio Grande Water Fund that provides $1 million a year; the recently passed New Mexico Forest and Watershed Restoration Act that will generate $2 million annually; and the North Central New Mexico Watershed Restoration fund under the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) with $2.7 million a year.

Sean Ferrell, Camino Real District Ranger, remarked that “if the Forest Service does it alone it takes forever to get the NEPA work done.” Gabe Romero, the Carson Forest silviculturist, added that the Camino Real District has an advantage because there are already NEPA ready acres that can leverage funding for other areas that need to be assessed. A discussion then ensued on how to determine a priority of work places. One suggestion was to start with Wildland/Urban Interface projects before moving on to areas of other concern. The discussion also included what the boundaries of our Peñasco area coalition should be: based on watersheds within this southern area of Taos County (and a portion of Rio Arriba County); extended to include areas closer to Truchas, where traditional firewood areas have supplied resources to the communities; and whether the Pecos Wilderness should be included. Sean Ferrell suggested that if the wilderness is included, fire suppression analysis would be conducted that could leverage funding for fire prevention. It was decided to postpone a decision on the exact boundaries but that the Embudo Valley watershed should definitely be included in the coalition area.

Restoration projects that are planned or already underway were also discussed. Forest Stewards Guild (formerly Forest Guild) began the NEPA work on the Rio de las Trampas Watershed Restoration Project almost 10 years ago. The project was originally conceived as a joint effort between the Camino Real Ranger District; Taos Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management; Picuris Pueblo; and the State Land Office. The target acreage was 6,000 on Forest Service land, 2,000 on BLM, 1,300 on Picuris, and 700 on state land. Their work was funded by a Collaborative Forest Restoration Program (CFRP) grant (a subsidiary of the Forest Service); the NEPA work was eventually completed on 5,718 acres of Camino Real Ranger District land, but funding for implementation wasn’t realized.

Now, in 2018, under the fiscal sponsorship of Forest Stewards Guild, a community based group called the Rio de las Trampas Forest Council is establishing a contract stewardship restoration program within 240 of those NEPA ready acres for community members to cut firewood for personal use or to sell. I’ll provide more information on the Forest Council in a subsequent article, but this pilot project will be partner in the Peñasco area watershed coalition .

The Santa Barbara Land Grant and Picuris Pueblo applied to the Rio Grande Water Fund to assist in the creation of a watershed coalition in the Peñasco area. While Picuris has already been engaged in forest thinning projects on the Pueblo, the land grant has been stymied in its prior attempts to address the fire danger in the Bear Mountain area, failing to win a CFRP grant several years ago. Working together within the watershed coalition will hopefully give the land grant leverage for funding. The Forest Service is currently working on the NEPA assessments. Picuris forester Luther Martinez told the group that it’s essential to work together because “fire doesn’t have any boundaries.”

At the end of the meeting the group brainstormed to identify any potential stakeholders that weren’t included in this initial meeting. J.R. Logan will be contacting those groups, including the Embudo Valley Regional Acequia Association, community fire departments, grazing associations, mutual domestic water associations, the New Mexico Acequia Association, and others, with invitations to attend the next meeting, scheduled for Tuesday, June 11, 10:00, at the Peñasco Community Center. The request was made again, that those who want to participate come with the right frame of mind, to work collectively to protect our watersheds and communities.

In the meeting I referenced discussions I’d had with Eytan Krasilovsky, Forest Guild director of the Rio de las Trampas Watershed Restoration Project back in 2012. He made a good point when he commented on the controversies that arise when trying to determine what forest restoration actually means. He said, “If we can’t agree on a healthy forest, maybe we can talk about a resilient forest, watershed, or landscape. I imagine the conversation would start: 1. Are our forests, watersheds, and landscapes resilient to fire, pests, pathogens, and climate change? 2. Can/should we try to increase their resiliency?” This is what the yet-to-be-named (our homework assignment is to come up with suggested names) Peñasco area watershed coalition is trying to do.

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