The morning air carried the bite of autumn as we unloaded from the van, mugs of coffee in hand, and hiked along an old road grade to where we could get a good look not at the view down valley, but at the trees. This area, right at Palo Flechado, the pass between Taos and Angel Fire, has seen saws and flame torches in recent years. Stumps mark where trees once crowded so closely their branches intermingled overhead.
Now, it's easy for Laura McCarthy of The Nature Conservancy to find a sunny spot to unroll her map. It covers the 280,000 acres near Taos where the Rio Grande Water Fund is planning wildfire mitigation efforts aimed at protecting the watershed for the Rio Grande—some 1.7 million acres—and its millions of downstream drinkers. On it, she has circled the areas identified as most at risk, and points out where previous fires have taken hold and burned up valleys. Were a fire to start near the base of the road to the Taos Ski Valley, it could burn through houses, ski area infrastructure, and stretches of the Carson National Forest popular for hiking, biking, skiing, and snowshoeing.
The fund's large-scale effort has aligned stakeholders from around the region, including the conservancy, the LOR Foundation, a grantmaker focused on rural communities in the West, and Louis Bacon, owner of Taos Ski Valley and founder of the Taos Ski Valley Foundation. By employing local contractors, connecting the lumber with those who can turn it into latillas, vigas, mulch, and firewood, the project's partners say it can boost the local economy as well.
"The Rio Grande Water Fund is a model for how state and local organizations, businesses, governments and communities can work together to improve and protect the health of this critical watershed for the future," Bacon writes in a statement. The Taos Ski Valley Foundation has contributed $375,000 to the fund over two years.
What McCarthy hopes to see is the forest—that after the thinning and burning, it's not nothing. It's an airy, sun-filled set of ponderosas and aspens, slightly charred by the prescribed fires that passed through four and seven years ago and burned low-level vegetation and piles without reaching the tops of the trees and wiping out the forest altogether. This work predates the project, but demonstrates what the fund's partners hope to leave for future generations to enjoy for its recreational values and utilize for high-quality drinking water.
Compare that kind of fire cycle to Las Conchas, McCarthy prompts, the crown fire that torched 43,000 acres in 14 hours in 2011. That type of fire is "out of category" for a forest that historically grew at an average density of 80 trees per acre, and now comes at more like 800 to 1,000. Problems continued even after the fire ended, when rain storms arrived and washed so much debris and sediment into the Rio Grande that Albuquerque and Santa Fe had to shut off water intakes from the river. Forest fires suddenly stopped looking like a problem just for the US Forest Service.
"They realized they needed a lot of partners," McCarthy says.
So, too, did the agency need to ramp up from efforts to address 5 acres at a time in a scattershot approach. The scope of work is enormous when the whole Rio Grande watershed is considered—aiming for 40 percent of the watershed, that's 600,000 acres forest managers hope to treat.
A "catalytic investment" of $1 million came from the LOR Foundation. For every private dollar invested, the fund leverages a matching $4 in public funds. Since launching in 2014, the project has reached 70,000 acres with thinning, controlled burns and managed natural fire.
McCarthy argues that what made it work was the collaborative approach: "These are enormous, complex problems, and nobody wants a bull's-eye on their back."
The more organizations that have joined, the easier it has been to recruit new partners, and 60 have signed on. The Taos and Isleta Pueblos are participating, too. Some of the thinning has been done by the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps, which employs 16- to 25-year-olds in conservation-focused work.
What everyone is after, in addition to protecting the water, is a better understanding of what's at risk if a massive fire does sweep up this canyon. For that research, we head to Garcia Park, lift mountain bikes off the van and take off down the South Boundary Trail, which cuts right through the middle of the acreage near Taos identified as a high priority for treatment. The route hugs a ridgeline that descends toward town, and by hugs, I mean the singletrack hangs onto the sides of steep hillsides while the peak-yellow aspens and pines rip past. It's world-class; the kind of trail that puts a place and its biking on the map, as long as it lasts