New Mexico: the good, the bad and the beautiful

About 40 New Mexicans, ranging from an infant in arms to a nonagenarian, gather under a shade structure pitched beside Cow Creek in the high Sangre de Cristo Mountains east of Pecos. We are here to learn more about some of the best and the worst of New Mexico’s environment.

To see the good and bad, the ugly and beautiful, we had to do no more than look around us. Cow Creek Valley is lush and gorgeous at this season. A lone, small 30-year-old pony grazes leisurely in the rich green meadow of the lovingly cared for Bustamante Ranch. The owner lives in Albuquerque but says, “I get up here every chance I can.” The creek along the edge of the meadow flows fast and clear. To see several kinds of trout, including a large one resting in the shade of bowed willows, all I have to do is stand quietly on the bank and look down.

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Meeting participants listening to speakers offer suggestions for healthy creek, river and soil habitat. Photos by Reina Fernandez.

Looking up, the aspens on the mountain slopes are already vividly colored patches of gold. Beyond them, the high mountains soar 5,000 feet above us to pinnacles and ridges scraping a sky of blue expanses decorated with fleecy clouds.

So much for the best. The worst is just as unavoidable.

Steep mountains on both sides of the valley are bare or filled with the carcasses of dead fir and spruce trees. Two huge wildfires raked this area in recent years. The first about 15 years ago burned 26,000 ares. The second, just three years ago, scorched another 12,000 acres. Recovery has already begun, but it will be long and slow.

The consequences of these fires are all around us, even in the seemingly clear creek. Silt and ash wash into it and other creeks. Climate change has raised the temperature of Cow Creek and other tributaries of the Pecos River. The water temperature has risen above the 71-degree limit that native cutthroat trout can tolerate. They are now disappearing, with brown, rainbow and speckled trout replacing them.

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Hippie the horse, enjoying his home in Cow Creek. Photos by Reina Fernandez.

The threats to the Pecos, one of the major river basins in New Mexico, along with the Rio Grande, the San Juan and the Canadian, help bring this group together, but their concerns are larger, extending to the future of the entire ecology of the mountain valleys, for this is where their families have owned small farms and ranches for several hundred years. Their lands are surrounded by the Santa Fe National Forest, but they were here long before the national forest arrived in the late 19th century, and they don’t plan on leaving anytime soon. The multigenerational families here on this Saturday morning testify to their determination to retain their ancient lands for their descendants and make them thrive once again.

Several organizations are collaborating on this workshop, but the principal sponsor is the Upper Pecos Watershed Association. Although the private group was established under state auspices, it, like almost all the state’s environmental activities, is financed by the federal government. Caught between dependence on federal dollars and rural resentment of federal regulations, the speakers tiptoe carefully through a minefield. When they mention the federal Environmental Protection Agency, they do so with an implied wink and shrug as if to say, “Don’t blame us. It is what it is.”

This is not the only piece of environmental tact shown today. Although everyone here knows that cattle create all kinds of environmental depredations, most of these families own at least a few cows. So the whole subject of cattle is never mentioned, by anybody.

Describing their approach to the environment, Douglas Jeffords, president of the watershed association, says, “We are the radical center.”

Much that has become inherited traditional wisdom is now in dispute, several speakers maintained. Beavers, formerly the terror of mountain ranchers, are now considered good because their dams create ponds and diverse currents beloved of fish. Willows, once deemed little more than pestilential weeds, are now valued to protect stream banks. “Everything has its place,” Jefords insists.

Through a full day of lectures, workshops, walks and work along Cow Creek, a few lessons were hammered home: creeks like this as well as rivers like the Pecos have been mistreated by man and nature; they now need help to survive and prosper; and that help is within reach. Plants and advice and even grants are offered to landowners. Knowledge is available, and is far more scientific than it was even a few years ago. All that seems missing is the energy of the people who use and value the land, and gatherings like this one are helping to supply that.