New Mexico Wild

Photo by Mark Allison

Photo by Mark Allison

(Story by Gail Snyder / Photos by Mark Allison and Stephen Lang)
The summer I was 11, my parents, my four brothers and I drove up the spine of California to Sequoia National Park for a week. Evidence of otherworldly giant trees was everywhere; even the air was palpably clean, crisp, redwood-scented. That week stands out for my brothers and me as an odd, magical reprieve from our usual bickering. We were still rowdy but it was a happy, calm and sated rowdiness. Keeping company with the Sequoias undeniably inspired in us this desire to be better, kinder. It would’ve seemed wrong somehow, offensive to the trees, to do otherwise. It turns out our experience wasn’t an anomaly; scientific studies confirm that being in the presence of trees improves our mental and physical health, in large part because the wood emits its essential oils into the air. Called “forest bathing,” it’s been added to Japan’s national health program, and it’s just one among an enormous array of gifts bestowed on us by wilderness.

Ironically, as appreciation for wilderness benefits has risen, the areas have become especially vulnerable. Mark Allison, executive director of the nonprofit New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, says, “We’re facing one of the most hostile environments for public lands” in recent memory. His organization is gearing up “to play a lot of defense.” Rather than getting depressed or helpless as we watch TV news, Mark says, don’t abandon hope; “get involved in something bigger than yourself!”

The original founders of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, or New Mexico Wild, as it is popularly referred to now, in response to threats, came from all over the state, says Mark, beginning in the ’70s, “especially from the labs, bringing a background of scientific training, as well as folks doing battle with the oil and gas companies and other organizations with deep pockets.” In 1997, New Mexico Wild formally established itself as the  statewide grassroots voice for our wildlands, kicking off what became their first victory in the mid-2000s: the protection of the Ojito Wilderness Area, in a collaborative effort with Zia Pueblo, New Mexico Governor Bruce King and other statewide elected government officials. Their bill was unanimously passed through both the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate; George W. Bush signed the Ojito Wilderness Act into law in 2005. It was an impressive debut.

Bernard Tibbetts, Mark Allison, and Zack Bumgarner / Photo by Stephen Lang

Bernard Tibbetts, Mark Allison, and Zack Bumgarner / Photo by Stephen Lang

In the 21 years since it formed, the nonprofit has never stopped working for New Mexico’s wildlands, helping to establish the Sabinoso Wilderness Act in 2008; the Omnibus Public Land Management Act, signed into law by President Obama in 2009; followed by the establishment of our two recent National Monuments, the Rio Grande del Norte in 2013, and the Organ Mountain Desert Peaks in 2014, both monuments designated by Obama. Just last June, in tandem with Wild Earth Guardians, New Mexico Wild won their case in federal court challenging the U.S. Department of Justice’s policy stating anyone killing animals on the Endangered Species Act list were only prosecuted if it were proven that the killer knew the exact biological identity of the species harmed.  (DOJ has appealed this case.)

With offices spanning the state, New Mexico Wild is connected to the pulse of our diverse population, including ranchers, sports enthusiasts, land grant heirs, acequia communities, tribal and religious leaders, scientists, elementary school students, youth and community leaders. “We are the largest, independent, homegrown, grassroots advocacy organization focused exclusively on land conservation and wilderness in New Mexico,” Mark says. Bringing so many disparate people together “couldn’t be done but for groups like us.” With the issue of public lands becoming more and more politicized, he says, the current atmosphere is one of high polarization. “But communities are so often ahead of our elected leaders—most people care about our public lands.”

Passing legislation is the main part of New Mexico Wild’s job. “And in order to do that, we have to listen, persuade and find common ground. All the richness of New Mexico’s people—we want everyone at the table. We’re the organizers, the mediators in all and any difficult conversations, including opposition. We want people to feel heard. Sure, we have setbacks all the time! We have to take the long view. We don’t quit, we just keep coming back! If it takes 10 years, it takes 10 years.” Also, “it makes our job much easier having such champions as [Sen. Tom] Udall and [Sen. Martin] Heinrich in our corner. We’re very fortunate in that respect.” And, he acknowledges, “we’re standing on the shoulders of significant tribal leaders. To have them out front, it’s very moving, an honor to be working at their sides.” Last year, at  All Pueblo Council of Governor’s Meeting  of the 19 New Mexico Pueblos, the president and vice president of the Navajo Nation joined in for the first time; New Mexico Wild was also there. The driving force behind this historic summit was the need to protect the greater Chaco Canyon area from effects of fracking by gas and oil corporations and the attendant health problems of Native communities close by. “It was very humbling,” Mark says, “to be a part of that discussion.” Everything New Mexico Wild does is with partners.

Photo by Mark Allison

Photo by Mark Allison

Also last year, partnering with the Wilderness Land Trust, New Mexico Wild helped unlock public access to the landlocked Sabinoso Wilderness Area. The Land Trust bought adjacent property, offering to donate it to the Bureau of Land Management; last November, Secretary of the Interior Ryan Zinke visited the area, and accepted the gift. New Mexico Wild contributed nearly 1,000 hours of volunteer fieldwork to the effort.

One of the most gratifying—and fun—parts of New Mexico Wild’s efforts is bringing people together and helping them discover that, although their reasons for valuing public lands may differ, they all share a passion to save it from being destroyed. Encouraging kids to come into the wilderness—“That’s the best!” Mark says. He describes groups of elementary school kids visiting for the first time. “You ask, ‘Do you know who owns all this?’ They shake their heads. ‘You do!” we tell them. And they start to really get it—‘This is my heritage! This is my birthright!’” New Mexico Wild staff members take high school groups, often paired with BLM or Forest Service agency staff, on wilderness field trips.  They recently brought retired combat vets, working on fire crews with the  Southwest Conservation Corps, together with students to share time together, hike, and help clear brush. “Ultimately, this is how we cultivate the next generations of wilderness stewards.” And it works. A New Mexico Wild member, retired U.S. Navy SEAL Brett Myrick, hiked through the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument with Secretary Zinke, himself an avid outdoorsman and former military leader, during the Secretary’s visit here in August. To further drive the point home about where he and 37 other active and retired Navy SEALS stand on Zinke’s decision to remove protections for national monuments, Brett gave Sec. Zinke a letter, signed by all, reminding him the military has a strong culture of natural resources stewardship and that public lands get military families out into wilderness, an invaluable healing experience for combat vets.

As we head into 2018, New Mexico Wild’s agenda is full, and includes legislation in the Senate to designate the Gila River as a Wild and Scenic River. One of  the biggest challenge just came to light: to combat a proposal that would seriously jeopardize all of their work in the greater Gila Wilderness area. Holloman Air Force Base plans to begin conducting military training exercises on a scale that would make “the entire Gila National Forest look and sound like a war zone.” These approximately 30 overflights a day, will be low altitude jets “screaming only 500 feet above the National Forest and 2,000 feet above Wilderness, while dropping 30,000 magnesium flares and ‘defensive chaff’ a year.” The U.S. Air Force is obligated to comply with the National Environmental Policy Act’s process requiring public involvement, but “had it not been for a vigilant supporter bringing this to our attention, this preposterous plan might have gone unchallenged.” New Mexico Wild immediately wrote to Holloman AFB asking that the since-expired public scoping period be extended. They contacted partner organizations and businesses affected, securing endorsements from dozens of groups. “We also reached out to other groups that are typically hostile to our efforts. We think there is common cause on this issue.” New Mexico Wild is demanding answers to disturbing questions associated with this proposal. “I’ve never seen a community so outraged,” Mark says. “They’re rising up, letting their voices be heard. People feel desperate, like they can’t make a difference, they’re powerless, but that’s just not true. When we stand together, we have all the power in the world.”

The Gila is America’s first designated wilderness area. Mark says, “There’s no guarantee we’ll be successful, but if we don’t try, the guarantee is that we won’t be. If we do the job right, we’ll scare them off and they’ll go somewhere else.” New Mexico Wild submitted technical scoping comments, demanded that the Air Force hold public meetings in Silver City; organized a community rally and encouraged individual citizens to sign petitions, and write letters to our senators, letters to the editor, and opinion pieces.

“The 1964 Wilderness Act is the gold standard for our public lands, keeping them free from development, roads and mechanized activities,” Mark says. “It’s a place where people can get away from industry’s sights, smells and sounds, a space of solace. You can snowshoe, hike, backpack there; you can still practice traditional uses like hunting and fishing. People do sacred ceremonies, collect herbs or traditional plants.” He pauses. “And, above all, wilderness is important as an idea. Even if you never go there. We need places that are untrammeled by humans, that exist in their natural state, for wildlife, for water. The wilderness is a spiritual place. I think, for me, at its most basic, it’s where we came from. It reconnects us. When we go out and stand around a fire, we’re back to the times before cell phones, cars, jets. It’s profound to allow that space and quiet, that dark sky affect us, bring us clarity.”

New Mexico Wild will never give up this mission of protection. “Legislation protects places in perpetuity, for our children and our grandchildren. It’s a pretty heady thing!” Mark laughs. In the Winter 2017 issue of New Mexico Wild!, Mark writes of 2018 being the time in which “the sleeping bear wakes.” He imagines in an editorial “what our world could look like 10 years from now.” What follows is a joyous list of victories, laced with humor, that we—New Mexico Wild and all of us who care about wilderness—will have accomplished by 2027. In his usual never-say-die fashion, he concludes, “You’ll no doubt recall that 2017 was a particularly tough year, but instead of despairing, we rolled up our sleeves and redoubled our efforts. And, while there were certainly setbacks and heartache these last 10 years, and many challenges remain, I couldn’t be prouder to have worked with you, shoulder to shoulder.”

 

 

 

Snow, Solitude, Sun, Silence & Cycles of Water

Cabin_04_kl

Image by Kitty Leaken

The storm had lifted and the temperature had begun to plummet as we turned off the pavement onto a Rio Arriba county road. It’s sunny in Santa Fe, but here a foot of fresh snow blankets the dirt track. I slow the Frontier down and shift into low but the footing seems solid, as long as we keep moving.

Rounding a corner, we are startled to see a county plow truck coming toward us. Luckily, there is a bit of extra room to the right and I ease off the road, graze a hidden boulder and coast back into the now-cleared road—smooth sailing ahead. “You gotta be lucky,” my father-in-law used to saw. Amen.

We roll on down into the hidden valley of the Rio Vallecitos. We park off the road at the river crossing, load up the kids’ old plastic toboggan and I do my Alaskan husky imitation, ferrying water, food and other gear for a winter foray to our cabin, about a quarter mile downstream. In summer, we drive across this waterway to access the property, but heavier trucks had been through it, breaking through the unset ice and turning it into a jumbled impasse.

Rope around my chest, I am off like a tortoise, dragging the sled over hill and dale. Kitty has gone ahead, and I see her off in the distance doing a sort of ballet movement with arms extended and a twirl or two as she drops out of sight. Continue reading

Too Big to Wrap

Taos Gorge, photo by Geraint Smith

Taos Gorge, photo by Geraint Smith

For your holiday gift list this year, think outside the box—way outside it—with gifts that refuse to be contained. Rather than giving eachother more stuff that has to be stored and maintained, why not give your loved one an experience they’ll cherish for a lifetime? Give the gift of knowledge, joy or adventure. While such things are intangible, they are also meaningful and enduring.

An Old-Fashioned Sleigh Ride

What could be more quintessentially yuletide than a horse-drawn sleigh ride in the snow? Throw in hot cocoa and cookies, and we’ve officially reached peak winter nostalgia. Arrange for a couples or family ride with Roadrunner Tours in Angel Fire.

The frost may bite, but that will only add to your warm, fuzzy feelings as the sleigh glides along a groomed nature trail starting at 4 p.m. A short stop at the halfway point allows for photo opportunities and time to walk around, pet the horses, and take in the peaceful surroundings. For the more culinary minded, you can add on a three-course meal following the ride. Tours are available December through March, last just under one hour and are appropriate for all ages. “This is our 33rd year of doing sleigh rides for Christmas,” owner Nancy Burch says. “It’s a tradition, and it makes a wonderful gift.” It’s not only a longstanding tradition, but also a popular one: During the Christmas season, tours fill quickly, so plan ahead and make reservations in advance.

Roadrunner Tours: $40/kids; $50/adults, 575.377.6416, nancyburch.com/sleigh-carriage Continue reading

Float Fishing the Rio – October 2017 Fishing Report

Taylor Streit Fly FishingIn Colorado, the Rio Grande is an excellent river to float-fish––it has a lot of the medium-speed, even currents that suits the style of fishing and there are roads paralleling the river and numerous places for put in/take outs. This all-important ease of access is not the case once the Rio enters New Mexico, because except for a short portion above Pilar the river runs through a roadless canyon.

We have 50 miles of exceedingly wild river that requires considerable effort to drift  and much of it is simply too rowdy to drift fish. But as the saying goes “if it was easy everybody would be doing it.” It’s highly unlikely that you’ll see another fisherman in this country—let alone one that’s in a boat. So if it’s solitude and a lack of competition that you’re looking for, this is it. Continue reading

September Fishing Report – Fighting and Landing Fish

Instinctive Fly Fishing - coverAfter watching people fight thousands of fish over my guiding career, I have an idea of why some folks land them—and why some don’t. A guide can’t do much to prepare people for fighting big fish; perhaps tie an old boot on and throw it into moving water to illustrate the mechanics of fighting fish, but that still doesn’t address the main problem.

Stay Calm

And that problem is that anglers lose their cool. Often an angler doesn’t have any cool to begin with and breaks off his prize when the fish’s instantaneous run triggers the fisherman’s not-as-instantaneous response. At this critical point, the fisherman might freeze and clamp down on the line, heave, trip over his own feet, fall, flounder, scream, and, sadly in extreme cases of great-sized trout, get hauled in and drown. The dimensions of the fish that causes such a state of insanity varies from one angler to the next. The beginning fly fisher may come apart with any size fish, but it may take a trophy of dangerous proportions to unnerve a seasoned angler. Rest assured that no matter how cool the customer, there’s a fish out there that will rattle him. It’s why we fish, isn’t it?

Delightfully, the best way to learn how to overcome this affliction is by getting into the ring and duking it out with the lunkers. A bruiser at the other end of the line gets a lot more attention than an old boot, and the learning curve is steep when the stakes are high. Just one day with a good guide on a river like New Mexico’s San Juan will teach you a great deal about fighting big trout. Continue reading

August Fishing Report – Jicarilla Lake

Taylor Streit Fly FishingThese lakes are south of the town of Dulce about 30 miles west of Chama. In my earlier book Fly Fishing NM, I listed several lakes to fish here. Although the north central part of the state has been largely unaffected by climate change––the inconvenient truth is that global warming has reduced the fishing to just two trout lakes. The better of the two seems to be Mondo Lake which has warm-water species as well as bass, trout, small sunfish, catfish and tiger muskie.

It used to be that Stone Lake was a famous fishery for huge rainbows. They were stocked in spring and within a year the rainbows were gargantuan as they chewed on the meaty and chewy water dog. Fisherman in-the-know would drive for hundreds of miles to get one of the lunkers. Lets hope for more continued rain and snow, and more and more normal—do we recall normal?—temperatures.

What actually hurts these fisheries is not the high water temperatures per se, but the weed growth that comes with it. As weeds die in winter and decay they take the oxygen out of the water. Also, weed beds impede the movement of fish––and anglers. Continue reading