By KAY MATTHEWS
It’s official. The Tres Rios Watershed Coalition is now an organization whose mission is to “improve the resilience of the forests and watersheds within the Greater Rio Embudo basin to benefit communities, cultures, and ecosystem.” Representatives of various stakeholder groups began meeting in April of 2019 to identify priority areas for watershed restoration (organizational development was funded by the Rio Grande Water Fund). Meetings were held monthly until December 12, when a final Tres Rios Restoration Strategy was signed by the member groups. Signatories represent various government agencies, environmental groups, land grants, acequia and grazing associations, Picuris Pueblo, Sipapu Ski and Summer Resort, and the Peñasco Volunteer Fire Department. (I’ll include a list below of all the members.)
The Tres Rios Watershed Coalition spans the entire Rio Embudo watershed of approximately 204,000 acres, beginning in the high peaks of the Pecos Wilderness on the east to the confluence of the Rio Embudo and Rio Grande to the west. It includes the Rio Pueblo, Rio Santa Barbara, Rio de las Trampas basins, the Picuris Pueblo reservation and the historic boundaries of the Santa Barbara and Las Trampas land grants. Public lands include the U.S. Forest Service, New Mexico State Land, and the Bureau of Land Management.
This new watershed coalition largely replicates the Taos Valley Watershed Coalition that formed in 2014 to restore forests and watersheds from Rio Grande del Rancho to San Cristobal. Tres Rios determined restoration priorities based on data from the Carson National Forest, Anchor Point Wildland Fire solutions, Taos County Community Wildfire Protection Plans, The Nature Conservancy, and the New Mexico Environment Department.
Stated objectives include:
• Protect local water sources from the impacts of catastrophic wildfire (critical water uses and users include: more than a dozen acequias, streams and rivers for wildlife and recreation, and 11 domestic water providers serve groundwater to more than 3,000 residents) through fuels reduction and the reintroduction of natural fire regimes.
- Improve the quality and reliability of water within the basin using forest restoration and riparian restoration, and align this work to assist with erosion control and other watershed health improvement activities.
- Enhance wildlife habitat and mitigate the risk of species being listed as “threatened” or “endangered.”
- Provide fuelwood and other wood products for local community members, promote traditional uses (including grazing and acequia agriculture) and incorporate traditional wisdom in restoration work.
- Collaborate with adjacent watershed coalitions and support complementary projects and efforts within the Rio Embudo basin and in adjacent communities to maximize the benefits of restoration work across the upper Rio Grande basin, and help protect the water supply for downstream water users along the Rio Grande.
- Build awareness about the need for watershed protection and for residents to become “fire-adapted” through education and outreach, and provide opportunities for residents and young people to be involved in restoration work in meaningful ways.
- Develop the capacity of local government, businesses, educational institutions to sustain forest restoration and watershed health activities into the future through economic and community development projects that also provide environmental benefits. Collaborative Priority Footprints
Seven areas within the Greater Rio Embudo basin have been identified as areas in need of immediate restoration attention based on evaluation of ecological conditions that pertain to high severity wildfire, protection of water and/or public safety.
Dixon Riparian Area
This 700-acre of Bureau of Land Management and private landowners area is threatened by invasive species such as Russian olive and salt cedar that create a dangerous wildfire situation in the riparian corridor that needs to be thinned. The BLM will work with private landowners to implement work on both public and private lands.
This 10,400 acre area is west of Picuris Pueblo and is on BLM, State Land Office, and private land. It’s a predominantly piñon/juniper forest with some ponderosa pine that is choked with ladder fuels. Treatment would include thinning of the piñon/juniper and removal of ladder fuels in the ponderosa pine. The BLM, Picuris Pueblo, and Forest Stewards Guild have already been working in this area.
The 5,800-acre pueblo is a transition zone of piñon/juniper to ponderosa pine with mixed conifer forest near the ridgetop. The threat of fire in the overgrown understory is a direct threat to the village of Picuris and to the Rio Embudo, due to the potential of post-fire debris flow. There are also numerous radio and transmission towers on the ridge. Picuris thinning crews would reduce fire danger in this Wildland/Urban Interface and prevent erosion into the Rio Embudo. The pueblo has a wildlife management plan that describes fire prevention planning in further detail.
Located within the Santa Barbara Land Grant, Forest Service, and on private land, this 3,000-acre area is a transition zone from ponderosa pine to mixed conifer with an overstocked understory. There is the potential for fire to carry from the mouth of Santa Barbara Canyon over the mountain to State Highway 518 and the Rio Pueblo, where post-fire debris would impact the river and acequia communities. Mechanical thinning along with fuel breaks would help reduce this risk. The Santa Barbara Land Grant would like to see this area formulate a forest council, similar to the Cerro Negro and Rio de Las Trampas Forest Councils (see La Jicarita, December17, 2018).
Under Forest Service and private land ownership, this corridor of 12,600 acres of mixed conifer is the narrow highway canyon along SH 518 and the Rio Pueblo. The 2018 Peñasco Community Wildfire Protection Plan identified the communities along this corridor—Sipapu, Tres Ritos, Angostura—as being at high risk of wildfire, along with the electrical transmission wire. Because the river is surrounded by steep terrain, treatments would include strategic cross canyon fuel breaks, creating defensible space around structures—and the ski resort—and reducing ladder fuels where possible.
La Junta is a 20,300-acre canyon of mixed conifer forest on Forest Service land. Two streams flow into the Rio Pueblo—Rito la Presa and Duran Creek—posing post-fire debris hazard. The forest is overstocked and susceptible to beetle and disease hazard. Thinning will improve fire hazard, reduce post-fire threats, and improve rangeland conditions.
Rio de las Trampas
These 7,200 acres lie between the villages of Las Trampas and El Valle on the Las Trampas Land Grant patent, the Forest Service, and private land. These acres are part of the Rio de Las Trampas Forest Restoration Project that began in 2011 and has National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) clearance, making it ready for restoration work. The NEPA assessment determined that the forest area is uncharacteristically dense and lacking in diversity. The Rio de Las Trampas is a tributary of the Rio Embudo and provides acequia water to the communities of El Valle, Las Trampas, and Ojo Sarco. Thinning would reduce fuels in piñon/juniper and ladder fuels in ponderosa.
The Rio de Las Trampas Forest Council, with funding from the Rio Grande Water Fund and under the fiscal sponsorship of Forest Stewards Guild, has implemented a forest stewardship program on 30 acres of the Rio de Las Trampas Forest Restoration Project, similar to the Cerro Negro Council on the Questa Ranger District. Thirty one-acre blocks have been flagged and leave trees marked for woodcutters, or leñeros, to thin for firewood and other forest products. A Mayordomo and Asistente oversee the project and leñeros are paid $300 per completed acre. Work began in late 2019 and will continue into 2020 as long as weather conditions allow. Forest Stewards Guild is submitting a Collaborative Forest Restoration Program (CFRP) three-year funding proposal for $360,000 to complete restoration work on the entire 246 acres.
To date, the Rio Grande Water Fund has been paying for the Tres Rios planning process under the guidance of J.R. Logan, who is a board member of the Cerro Negro Forest Council on the Questa Ranger District. At the December 12 meeting, watershed members discussed possible future funding so the “priority footprint” projects can get underway sooner rather than later. If the Rio de Las Trampas Forest Council is approved for CFRP funding, restoration work will continue over the next three to four years. NEPA analysis of Bear Mountain is currently on the Forest Service schedule, and the Santa Barbara Land Grant hopes to apply for funding for 2021. Picuris Pueblo is already engaged in thinning projects on the pueblo and in the Copper Hill area along with the BLM.
Additional funding sources that could help continue this work and instigate projects in the other identified area include:
• Forest and Watershed Restoration Act under the New Mexico State Forestry generates $2 million annually and funds projects submitted via district foresters for up to $200,000. The grants can be used on any lands that need treatment.
- Non-Federal Lands Grant under the New Mexico State Forestry grants up to $280,000 for treatments on private land.
- Collaborative Forest Restoration Program, already discussed, grants up to $360,000.
- North Central New Mexico Watershed Restoration fund under the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS) distributes $2.7 million a year.
Tres Rios Watershed Members
Amigos Bravos, Bureau of Land Management, Carson National Forest, Ecotone Landscape Planning, Embudo Valley Regional Acequia Association, Forest Stewards Guild, Las Trampas Land Grant, Luna/Chacon Grazing Association, New Mexico Acequia Association, New Mexico State Forestry, NM Department of Game and Fish, Natural Resource Conservation Service, Peñasco Volunteer Fire Department, Picuris Pueblo, Rio de Las Trampas Forest Council, Rocky Mountain Youth Corps, Santa Barbara Land Grant, Sipapu Ski and Summer Resort, Taos County, Taos Land Trust, Taos Soil and Water Conservation District, The Nature Conservancy/Rio Grande Water Fund, Trout Unlimited, and U.S. Geological Field Survey New Mexico Field Station.