Wildfire danger closed the Santa Fe National Forest to the public, so some youth trail crews are looking at the potential to instead spend the summer building picnic tables and staffing road blockades instead of maintaining trails and restoring wildlife habitat. Trail work planned by the Fat Tire Society on upper portions of the Winsor Trail was similarly derailed.
So far, a total of seven projects have been affected this month, according to Bruce Hill, public affairs officer for the Santa Fe National Forest. Some day-long projects could be rescheduled for July or August, while longer wilderness-based projects may not make it back on the calendar this year.
The Forest Stewards Guild's youth crews program, run in partnership with the US Forest Service, has hired 16- to 19-year-olds to complete conservation projects for two decades. This summer, they had 41 crew members in training for work to limit erosion, repair fences and maintain wildlife water sources when the news came out that the national forests would be closing.
The closure went into effect at 8 am Friday June 1. Forest Supervisor James Melonas cited widespread noncompliance with a ban on campfires and record-setting conditions for fire danger as cause for banning public access to the forest until monsoon storms bring sufficient rain to lower fire danger. The markers to predict the risk that a fire will take off and burn hot and fast have reached historic levels, matching years of notable fires like 2011, the year of the Pacheco and Las Conchas fires, and 2002, when the Ponil Complex fire burned 92,000 acres near Cimarron. Fuel moisture levels are at or below 5 percent. This closure marks the first since 2013.
Each of the six Forest Stewards Guild youth crew goes to a different National Forest ranger districts, leaving the four Santa Fe National Forest district rangers to decide how to redirect these crews, says Eytan Krasilovsky of the Forest Stewards Guild. Those crews now may find themselves staffing road blocks, shadowing patrols, maintaining the flagging tape and signs, or otherwise informing the public that the gates are closed. At least one crew was rerouted to build fencing and tables for a picnic area at the ranger district office, and one ranger proposed office work.
"Their work plans really vary, but it's definitely affecting them and they're more limited now in what they can do," Krasilovsky says, "until the rains come."
The crew based in the Santa Fe National Forest's Española Ranger District was able to get an exception to continue work as planned—which is a relief, says Dakota Wagner, a North Carolina college student working as the crew trainer.
"Being outside and connecting with the outdoors in a way where you're taking responsibility for it is really important," she says. "A lot of people, I think, take for granted the natural spaces that we have, and they don't realize all the work that goes into keeping those spaces clean or just available for people to use."
That sentiment feels especially poignant given that the public was shut out after national forest personnel counted 84 abandoned campfires over Memorial Day weekend.
The closure canceled Santa Fe Fat Tire Society volunteers' plans to repair an eroded half-mile portion of the Winsor Trail near the Norski trails for National Trails Day on Saturday June 2, says club president Brent Bonwell. Plans to spend June 9 repairing a rutted quarter-mile section of the Winsor near its intersection with the Borrego Trail was put off as well. The mountain biking club's trail crew volunteers cumulatively log an annual average of more than 2,000 hours of work, Bonwell says, adding that that's the equivalent to a full-time employee. The work done to clear downed trees from trails in a burn area drives home a clear message about the closure.
"The trees that were killed in the Pacheco Fire, the wind just brought them down like pick-up sticks," he says. Already, they sawed through up to 500 trees in an effort to re-open trails damaged in that fire, then an April windstorm brought hundreds more down. Wildfire-caused deadfall and badly eroded trails can take years to restore, Bonwell points out.
"It's much better to have the forest closed for a few weeks than to have it burn and have a tremendous amount of work to do recovering from the fire," he says. "So we'd like to be out there, but we understand the need for the closure."
Meanwhile, the state's largest wildfire burning now is the Ute Park Fire, between Eagle Nest and Cimarron. It has topped 36,000 acres and was 25 percent contained as of Monday evening, when nearly 600 personnel were on the fire, including eight helicopters and 19 engines. An evacuation ordered for the town of Cimarron was rescinded early Monday, though Highway 64 through the area remains closed.
Late Monday, Santa Fe National Forest staff had also responded to at least two small fires. The agency reported a half-acre fire near the Glorieta Lookout had been held to a few smoldering areas in the ponderosa pines and grass, while a one-acre fire east of the Gorham Scout Camp near Chimayó reported Monday evening was 0 percent contained at roughly noon Tuesday.
Closed: Bandelier National Monument backcountry trails, Departments of Defense and Energy lands, Hyde Memorial State Park, Los Alamos County property, select Pecos National Historical Park trails and areas, Santa Fe National Forest, Valles Caldera National Preserve backcountry
Open: The city-owned Dale Ball Trail system, St. John's Trailhead at the base of the Forest Service's Atalaya Trail (though Atalaya Trail is managed by the Forest Service and closed), La Piedra Open Space Trail, and Dorothy Stewart Trail System. State forests are open but under fire restrictions that prohibit all campfires and open burning.
This story initially reported that the Cibola National Forest has also closed. It is only in stage two restrictions. SFR regrets the error.