Hike far enough into the trail systems on the eastern border of town, and you run into signs declaring the territory behind them closed to human access. Out of concern for contamination from humans and dogs, and to reduce the risk of wildfire, the municipal watershed has been closed since 1932. Violators face a potential $5,000 fine. Walk that line for a while, and the signs show the effects of having served in someone’s target practice, and what’s left of a barbed wire fence lies snarled in the dirt.

A hiker can look over into those ponderosa pines and think longingly of the relatively untouched terrain beyond, the steep forest and intermittent tributaries running toward the Santa Fe River, feeding the city's reservoirs. We've agreed to offer that territory up in the name of clean drinking water. But cows don't read, and in most places, no fence bars them from wandering right into the watershed, which they did last summer.

"It wasn't like they were hanging on the ridges; they were down standing in the good green stuff by the river," says Sandy Hurlocker, District Ranger for Santa Fe National Forest's Española District, whose office got the call from city staff. "We're pretty perplexed that cows were coming in there."

They called the cattle's owner, and a few days later, the animals were removed. For the time being.

"They may have wandered back down later in the season," Hurlocker says. "It might have been a couple times."

The Forest Service has since installed a quarter-mile of fence at the top of the drainage where the cattle were suspected of crossing.

No fines were issued to the permittee whose cattle had trespassed into the city watershed. The Forest Service handled the matter with just a conversation. This casual resolution is typically how officials throughout the West handle instances of cattle grazing where and when they shouldn't. A recent Government Accountability Office report requested by Congress following several high-profile incidents (the Cliven Bundy standoff over illegal grazing in Nevada no doubt among them) found that unauthorized grazing is widespread, largely unmonitored and frequently unpenalized—and that the true extent of the problem is largely unknown.

Rangers don't have time to check the places where cattle are supposed to be, much less the acres out of rotation. About 450 million acres of federally managed land are open for multiple uses that include grazing, saddling each range staff member of the Bureau of Land Management with roughly 850,000 acres on average, and for the Forest Service, approximately 255,000 acres, according to the report. In one Utah office, two BLM staffers oversee 2 million acres.

The task of checking pastures gets rolled into other duties, like restocking restrooms, and field work gets set aside for other management duties, like dealing with wildfires, which is where more than half of the budget for the US Forest Service was spent in 2015. So agencies rely on public reports about cattle in places they shouldn't be.

The Government Accountability Office report found US Bureau of Land Management and US Forest Service agency databases had recorded nearly 1,500 incidents of authorized grazing between 2010 and 2014 that led to formal response—likely a small portion of actual infractions. Fines are so low they fail to act as a deterrent, the report states. One Forest Service staff member went so far as to express reluctance to send a bill because it would just show the low cost of breaking the rules. Already, rangers report ranchers simply rolling the fees into their costs of doing work.

They usually don't even "get to that point" of issuing fines, says Steve Romero, District Ranger for Santa Fe National Forest's Pecos/Las Vegas District.

"Sometimes we have in the past," he says. "After we did issue that fee for the unauthorized grazing, it seems like compliance comes, but I think maybe that's because then there's the next step. They still don't comply, suspension or cancelation of the permit starts to become part of the menu, if you will, of consequences."

But in their respective eight and 10 years in these ranger districts, neither Romero or Hurlocker recalls canceling an entire permit, just reducing the number of cattle allocated to it.

Handling unauthorized grazing with a phone call makes for speediest resolution. It saves staff a lot of paperwork. The trouble is that without a paper trail, whether a rancher repeatedly violates the conditions of a permit can go untraced, and that matters in a system where consequences ratchet up for repeat and willful offenders. The Forest Service fee hovers at $10.68 per cow, but the BLM's fees, which vary by state, can climb as high as $117, which might actually sting. Parking your car without paying the fee at a wilderness trailhead, meanwhile, could lead to an $80 ticket.

Where human visitors pay $2 or $3 for a day-use permit, a cow stays for $2.11 per month. In 15 years, the grazing fee hasn't even come up a full dollar. The cost of grazing on private land, meanwhile, ranges from $9 to $39, according to the National Agricultural Statistics Service.

The Government Accountability Office's last major report on grazing fees, completed in 2005, found that the revenue generated through grazing doesn't even cover the administrative costs of the program.

US Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Arizona), ranking member of the House Natural Resources Committee, who requested the report on trespass grazing and overgrazing, said in a press release at its publication, "The Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management need to bring grazing fees in line with the modern economy and take illegal use of public lands more seriously going forward."

It's not that ranchers and the Forest Service are close friends. Frustrations run both ways, with ranchers aiming to continue a custom deeply embedded both culturally and financially into their families, and the Forest Service charged with enacting ever changing regulations, which shift every time a new endangered species is listed, like the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse was in 2014.

"The tradition here has been kind of tense," Hurlocker says. "But it's always been respectful when we work with each other. They know the land and we know the regulations."

The goal has been to maintain working relationships while managing the land based on the guidelines for grazing mapped out by the National Environmental Policy Act. They set specific targets for vegetation and grass height, stream banks and erosion in an effort to protect other species' opportunities to thrive in the forest while ranchers also make use of it.

"It's not just how many cows can we put into one place," Hurlocker says. "It's how many cows can we put in one place and maintain fish habitat and owl habitat."

Cattle and sheep grazing dramatically reshaped the New Mexican landscape. Settlers arriving describe grassy plains and a web of narrow, shallow streams. Today, those landscapes yield more sunbaked sand, deep and often dry arroyos and myriad invasive species that stepped in to replace native grasses ripped out at their roots by gnawing teeth. In Enchantment and Exploitation, a history of northern New Mexico and how its people have shaped and been shaped by the land, William deBuys writes that we don't even know what native grasses existed in some of these environments. No documentation of them predates the arrival of major herds of sheep and cattle that were pushed north out of Texas after overgrazing led to rampant desertification there.

Grasses evolved in conjunction with herbivores; in some ways, cattle are needed on the landscape to replace the bison herds now long gone. But without a major predator to keep the herds moving, that regenerative potential can wheel over to damage.

"One of the things we talk about in the restoration community here is that people in New Mexico don't know what healthy landscapes look like because they've been unhealthy for so long, so the reference point isn't there of what it could look like," says Mollie Walton, land and water program director of the Quivira Coalition.

The Forest Service's annual plan maps out a schedule that rotates cattle through various pastures in an effort to prevent the overgrazing that cost the West much of its grass and water and threatened habitat for other species.

"We're already dealing with systems that aren't as resilient as what they once were, so that's why it's important to do really good grazing management in New Mexico," Walton says. The Quivira Coalition works to encourage and teach sustainable ranching practices and find ways to rebuild alliances in a system so contentious at times she worries they'll never get all stakeholders back to the table to talk compromise.

While that annual plan has the best of intentions, she's also heard instances of it stalling out a rancher's efforts to sensitively manage the land. Because the annual plan lists specific dates, if conditions shift from what's expected and a rancher would like to move cattle to avoid overgrazing, fetching the Forest Service ranger out to check and sign off on the change calls for tedious delays.

"They're just so understaffed, they're set up to fail," Walton says. "You're talking about a job four people should be doing, not one."

In the Government Accountability Office report, some of the photos of land damaged by unauthorized grazing come from the Santa Fe National Forest, and show areas of proposed critical habitat for the endangered New Mexico meadow jumping mouse where a fence has preserved a swath of tall, green grass in an otherwise closely cropped carpet.

Mike Lucero, a fifth-generation rancher, grazes his cattle in the Jemez Mountains.
Mike Lucero, a fifth-generation rancher, grazes his cattle in the Jemez Mountains. | Elizabeth Miller

That's not what you'd see if you traveled with Mike Lucero, a fifth-generation rancher, out to his allotment in the western half of the Santa Fe National Forest, near Jemez Springs. He's one of about 10 ranchers with a total of 250 cows on thousands of acres that stretch frrom wildflower-filled meadows to looser groves of ponderosa pines and on down to the red canyons near his house, where the walls are adorned with photos of his son and daughter barrel racing and bull riding. They both have rodeo dreams; he plans for the calves he sells annually to pay for their college educations. When he drives through that piece of land, he traverses near areas his great-grandparents ranched and logged, through the tunnels they helped to excavate.

"It's not about getting rich. It's about passing on your traditions," says Lucero, who works full time on the SWAT team for Los Alamos.

Much of the cattle grazing in the Santa Fe National Forest isn't large-scale commercial operations, but small and family-run. Most own just a dozen or so cattle. Allotments generally see less than 100 cattle, and date their use of the land to the land-grant era.

"The tradition has not changed," Lucero says. "Everything around us has completely changed."

Much of that change has come through the New Mexico meadow jumping mouse, recently listed as an endangered species. Management settled on a strategy of exclosures and fenced-off riparian areas. Weeks after Lucero's cattle have been moved to another pasture, the grass on either side of the fence looks roughly the same.

"We did that. It's not the fence. It's management," he says. "What a waste of money to accomplish something we were already doing."

Public lands grazing is “not a perfect system,” says the US Forest Service.
Public lands grazing is “not a perfect system,” says the US Forest Service. | Elizabeth Miller

His allotment sits amid of one of the state's more popular recreation areas, and each weekend, the forest is crowded with RVs and tents. People complain about cattle, he says, but he points to the beaten tracks and bare dirt where ATVs have driven and vehicles parked, and grass flattened by tents, and declares, "Cows didn't do that." Ranchers find themselves picking up trash, putting out campfires and repairing water tanks that have been shot and drained, and fences that were chopped to let ATVs pass.

Though, to be clear, those interested in hiking or backpacking on a landscape devoid of cattle aren't likely to overlap with those traveling through the woods on and sleeping in motorized vehicles.

As we drive, he comes up on a cluster of six cows and calves, including a pair of his, about eight miles from where the herd is supposed to be.

Despite best efforts, there's an ongoing level of risk involved, just given the number of variables, from humans to cattle. But he doesn't see a viable alternative in raising cattle behind fences their whole lives. Not while there's a market for grass-fed beef, anyway.

"The truth is, yes, some people overgraze and it leaves the land worse than when they started," he says. "But not everybody."

When Laura Jean Schneider and her husband, founders of Big Circle Beef, decided to make their living as cattle ranchers, they went all in—all in to a 320-square-foot trailer they could park on their 90,000-acre allotment on land leased from the Mescalero Apache reservation in southern New Mexico. They wanted to be within a horseback ride of their cattle, now some 900 yearling steers and 500 cow-calf pairs, plus 35 bulls, so they could check on them daily.

"The way that I want to raise cattle is to restore landscapes and not to pollute them or degrade them," says Schneider.

The Quivira Coalition’s Land and Water Program has organized restoration work to protect watersheds and restore wetlands where cattle grazing continues. The Comanche Creek in Valle Vidal is one of their leading examples.
The Quivira Coalition’s Land and Water Program has organized restoration work to protect watersheds and restore wetlands where cattle grazing continues. The Comanche Creek in Valle Vidal is one of their leading examples. | Courtesy Quivira Coalition

Mostly, that requires vigilance. Regularly monitoring cattle, and adjusting based on water available in this brutally dry climate, can curtail problems before they start. Cattle, she contends, can turn grass into a high-protein food source, and, done well, can still leave space for different plant species to thrive.

"Ranchers have a huge potential to manage the land on a micro level because they're out there on the land every day," she says. "The conscientious rancher will pay attention to best using that forage, and caring for the land base as an investment. … A responsible farmer or rancher just never does it at the cost of the landscape, because if you give to it, it will give back to you."

Among the alternatives environmental organizations have tried to craft to ease coexistence of conflicting interests on public lands is a program that lets ranchers sell their grazing permits to be temporarily closed. In southern New Mexico, it's worked to give ranchers another option after fences and water tanks were damaged in a wildfire, and leave more space for Mexican wolves. About 25 ranchers a year enroll throughout the West, volunteering their permits for temporary administrative closures. Permanently retiring those permits requires Congressional authorization, and the most recent effort, a rider in 2013 that would allow for a pilot program, failed. So WildEarth Guardians is considering whether to ask district rangers to retire voluntarily relinquished permits in the vicinity of the Santa Fe National Forest and Pecos Wilderness near the municipal watershed.

This summer, cowpies littered the ridgeline near the boundary of the Santa Fe Watershed.
This summer, cowpies littered the ridgeline near the boundary of the Santa Fe Watershed. | Elizabeth Miller

"You have an invasive species that's known to carry waterborne diseases defecating in a closed portion of the watershed because of poor management by everybody—by the city, by the Forest Service and by the rancher," says Madeleine Carey, with WildEarth Guardians. "If you can raise cattle without causing other species to go extinct or become endangered, and you're not degrading water quality, I'm fine with it. That's my big asterisk; that's my only ask."

Would ranchers in the Santa Fe National Forest bite on the chance to sell their grazing permits? Rangers say it's tough to know.

"Because of the traditions and going back to the historic use, I think there's a lot more it's about than money," Hurlocker says.

Schneider, who ranches near where the program is already underway, questions the end goal for that land.

"It can't return to its native state because we've altered the state of our landscape so much that there's kind of no wild to go back to," she says. "I don't think the answer is, 'Clear all cattle and return to wild,' whatever 'wild' is. I think the answer is to find common ground, and then to make that happen creatively."

If we lived in a landscape that had never been grazed and logged, maybe it would be different, Lucero's argument goes: "If we never touched it, I'd say we don't have a responsibility, but we've done things to the land that changed it," he says. "We've become responsible for it."

"Land that's been badly degraded needs to be nudged in the proper directions," says Walton, with the Quivira Coalition. "It's not as easy as, 'Remove the disturbance and everything will be fine.'"

This summer, cattle and their traces have also been spotted near Ski Santa Fe, which is outside any grazing allotment, and in the campground at Santa Barbara Trailhead, their manure adjacent to the bathrooms for human use and signs asking pet owners to clean up after their dogs.

"The ski area is probably the area on our side where we have the most trouble with cattle stepping over where they shouldn't be," Hurlocker says. On a mid-August weekend, public reports came in about 10 cows in the ski basin. The permittee was called to move them back out, but it's a chronic problem, Hurlocker says.

On the west side of Hyde Park Road, in the vicinity of popular trails like Bear Wallow, Borrego, Rio en Medio and Norski, cattle are allowed, and there's a fence on the west side of the area, but trees knock it down and people passing through to hike or bike leave gates open.

"It's not a perfect system," Hurlocker says. "Whatever resource we're managing, we just have to rely on people, the honor system first, and if things get egregious, then try to focus our resources on dealing with it."

Looking at a map of the allotments in the eastern half of the Santa Fe National Forest, everywhere but the area directly around the ski area, the watershed, and Hyde Memorial State Park has cattle allocated to it. For endangered species, even for those who would enjoy a pristine wilderness experience, nothing seems to be set aside.

"I go back to the mandate, the multiple use mandate; the Wilderness Act mandate says cattle have a place in the wilderness," Hurlocker says. "If you go back to the 1960s, there probably would be no Wilderness Act without that compromise. So it's a fact of life for us to say cattle are a part of our management routine."

There are different reads on that, though.

"The multiple use mandate doesn't mean every use on every acre. It means multiple uses across the forest. So it doesn't mean the ski basin needs to have skiing, mountain biking, logging, cattle grazing, and wilderness experiences on it," Carey says. "It means that it should have skiing and hiking, and then the piece of land next to it has wilderness values, and then a piece of land somewhere else that's not as pristine, that isn't as high up in the watershed, is for cattle grazing."

With the Forest Service currently re-doing its management plan for the Santa Fe National Forest, the agency is opening up these debates. The plan will guide management for the next 10 to 15 years; the current plan has been in place for 29 years. Meetings moving forward in September specifically deal with the question of wilderness and will be hosted at ranger districts throughout the area. The agency will also host field trips in September and October to discuss forest plan revisions with the resources in question as the backdrop.

Comments submitted by Amigos Bravos and Western Environmental Law Center cited research that shows cattle grazing often negatively affect streams, and that there's a compelling case for carefully controlling, if not altogether removing, cattle from riparian areas.

How the Forest Service will incorporate that and other feedback from public comments is still unfolding. Between their draft and final published findings on focus areas and need for change in the Santa Fe National Forest, the word "overgrazing" vanished.

"The reality is, it's not a good system," Carey says. "Instead of hemming and hawing and saying, 'Well, I'll only put my cattle in this pasture in this month when this species isn't there,' or 'If I don't have to work on all my other fences, I can really work on the fence that's on the watershed'—no. If you can run your operation in a way that works for you to raise your cattle, works for the land management agency and works for people depending on the other resource—in this case, water—then that's fine. And if it's not going to work, we have to be realistic about that."