Stewardship of the Enchanted Circle Priority Landscape: what’s been accomplished and what’s next

The Taos County Commission chamber was packed on April 7 with government officials (from federal to county), NGOs, tribal leaders, environmental non-profits, community organizers, and volunteers to talk about how to better “steward” what is called the Enchanted Circle Priority Landscape. This landscape, which encompasses parts of both Taos and Colfax counties along the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, was designated the highest priority of six other designated landscapes in terms of vulnerability to wildfire and in need of coordinated strategies to restore and improve natural resources that benefit its ecological and human communities.

Collin Haffey, Forest And Watershed Health Coordinator for New Mexico State Forestry Division, J.R. Logan, Taos County Watershed Coalition Coordinator, Rene Romero, Fire Management Officer at Taos Pueblo, and Laura McCarthy, New Mexico State Forester, organized the meeting to showcase collaborations that are already working in the designated area and plan how to increase the pace and scale of this kind of work. With federal funding coming down the pipe via the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021, there will be millions of dollars that can be used to fund work for watershed restoration, fire management, utility corridor safety, reforestation, urban forest restoration, and economic development.

Collin Haffey presented a brief history of how we’ve arrived at this critical juncture and are “work ready” to implement federal funding. The 1996 Hondo Fire and the 2000 Cerro Grande Fire opened people’s eyes to how vulnerable the state was to fire and resource loss. Around 2012 Laura McCarthy and other Taos area organizers, especially Ron Gardiner of Questa (Gardiner, a good friend of La Jicarita, died in 2016), started the work that became the Taos Valley Watershed Association in 2015. The group developed a shared stewardship memo to work with other organizations in 2019, and in 2020 the U.S. Forest Service Forest Action Plan was revised to “offer practical and comprehensive roadmaps for investing federal, state, local, and private resources where they can be most effective in achieving national conservation goals.” This all culminated in an overlap of local collaborators, State Forestry, and the US. Forest Service. The job of the Enchanted Circle Priority Landscape is to now identify the needs and direct the allocated funding to the work on the ground.

Taos Valley Watershed Coalition

J.R. Logan, who took up the work begun by McCarthy and Gardiner, provided an overview of this project that covers 320,000 acres on the west side of the Sangre de Cristos from San Cristobal to the Rio Grande del Rancho encompassing Forest Service, Taos Pueblo, Bureau of Land Management, and private lands. Forest restorations projects include: Pueblo Ridge, the borderline area in Taos Canyon between Taos Pueblo and Carson National Forest; El Salto Restoration, lands between El Salto and Taos Pueblo; the Rio Hondo Corridor to the Taos Ski Valley; and McGaffey Ridge near Pot Creek. So far, 6,500 acres have been thinned and 2,500 acres burned.

Left, Carson Forest Supervisor James Duran; right, David Arguello

Some of this work has been done by the Cerro Negro Forest Council, a mayordomo/leñero program that is duplicated in other parts of the Carson (Rio de Las Trampas Forest Council) David Arguello, a Cerro Negro Forest Council and Arroyo Hondo Arriba Community Land Grant member, provided an overview of the history of his family’s settlement in the Arroyo Hondo/San Cristobal/Valdez area where much of the Council is doing its thinning. He focused on the need to replicate the “normative behavior of a collective” that both the Taos Pueblo and Hispano people of the area bring to the work being done today to restore and care for the watershed and forests. Cerro Negro has thinned 170 acres, provided 800 cords of fuelwood, and employed 55 leñeros who earned $300 per completed acre.

Another partner with the Watershed Coalition is the Rio Fernando de Taos Revitalization Collaborative. This group organized in 2017 to revitalize this river that originates in the Sangres and runs through Taos Canyon, the Town of Taos, and the fields of Taos Valley before joining the Rio Pueblo de Taos and feeding into the Rio Grande (it also feeds seven acequias). The group’s primary objectives are to strengthen the acequia system, improve trails and pathways to the acequias, restore wetlands, prevent fire, and mitigate river pollution. Its partners include Amigos Bravos, The Nature Conservancy, Taos Land Trust, and the Forest Service.

Cimarron Watershed Alliance

This partnership became a 501c3 non-profit in 2014 and encompasses 670,000 acres in Colfax County, 555,000 of which are private land holdings. Rick Smith, who made the group’s presentation, explained that the devastating Ponil Fire that burned 92,000 acres, along with other fires that have burned 185,000 acres, galvanized private land owners, the Forest Service, State Forestry, and New Mexico Game and Fish to come together to work on forest and watershed restoration projects to mitigate fire danger. Most of the work thus far accomplished has been on private land, particularly in Vermejo Park, which has thinned 1,200 acres per year, funded by ranch owner Ted Turner. State Forestry has a $3 million funded project and the Forest Service plans to thin and prescribe burn 4,000 acres per year in the Valle Vidal. Rick also identified the sawmills in the area that can process the wood: Western Wood Products in Raton that turns much of the Vermejo Park wood into poles and pellets; and Silver Dollar Wood Products in Maxwell that produces wood shavings. A long-term objective is to create a logging co-op that can address the needs of the private landholders and collaborate with the public land agencies.

Comanche Creek Working Group

Restoring Comanche Creek in the Carson National Forest’s Valle Vidal has been a long, on-going project involving many key people and organizations. Toner Mitchell of Trout Unlimited acknowledged that the project was the brainchild of the Quivira Coalition, particularly co-founder Courtney White, who worked with numerous other leaders and groups over the years since 2000: Trout Unlimited, Joe Torres of the Valle Vidal Grazing Association, restoration specialist Bill Zydeck, and Peter Vigil of Taos Soil and Water Conservation District, for whom La Jicarita wrote an article on Zydeck’s work in 2008. The U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service had filed notice of its intent to list the Rio Grande cutthroat trout on its endangered species list in May of 2008 and Zydeck’s restoration project, along with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish’s exotic species removal project worked to restore the native population.

Comanche Creek meanders through the 100,000 acres of the Unit but has suffered multiple problems of erosion, water quality, turbidity, and streamside degradation. Over the years the restoration project has received funding from governmental agencies, private corporations, and foundations, including two grants from Coca Cola. A four year assessment found that 125 afy of water has been stored to better support habitat and downstream acequias. A National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) assessment of the riparian area will soon be released.

The next step for the Enchanted Circle Priority Landscape is to set up smaller meeting groups to develop specific treatment plans over the next 10 years. For those of us in the greater Rio Embudo area, it will mean reconvening the Tres Rios Watershed Coalition that was officially established in 2020 to “improve the resilience of the forests and watersheds within the basin to benefit communities, cultures, and ecosystem.” The Rio de Las Trampas Forest Council is just one component of this coalition, which 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.

La Jicarita will continue to follow the progress “and the money” as the Enchanted Circle Priority Landscape and its member coalitions implement work on the ground.


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