Opinion: Concerned local citizens are Río Fernando's best chance for survival

By Jerry Yeargin, Taos County resident
Posted 10/3/19

A recent report in the Taos News about the town of Taos' plan for preserving the trees in town was very encouraging. What a contrast the town's attitude on this makes - compared with …

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Opinion: Concerned local citizens are Río Fernando's best chance for survival

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A recent report in the Taos News about the town of Taos' plan for preserving the trees in town was very encouraging. What a contrast the town's attitude on this makes - compared with the position of the Forest Service.

When it comes to managing local wetlands and streams, the Forest Service has shown prejudice against forested habitat in favor of open pasture, to maximize riparian grazing acres for livestock. More than once, Forest Service managers have referred to trees dismissively as "straws sucking up the water." They want rivers on federal land to have fewer trees and more grass.

Because of this longstanding institutional bias, streams like the Río Fernando have been losing the tree and shrub canopy for decades. Livestock grazing down to "4-inch stubble" along the upper Río Fernando prevents volunteer trees and shrubs or new plantings from surviving. As a result, the streambanks and the river itself have been left exposed to the wind and sun, and the river channel is clogged with sediment from cattle trampling. Fish have disappeared.

The upper Río Fernando is located in the Flechado grazing allotment. The grazing permittee on this allotment has not been required to keep up the fencing between pastures, so the rotation plan cannot be followed. During the grazing season, the herd is scattered through this allotment of over 6,400 acres. The exception to this is the month when the cattle are in La Jara Canyon where the cows spend all their time within a few feet of the river, contaminating the water with bacteria.

Forest Service guidelines allow for destabilization of up to 10 percent of the streambanks on grazing allotments, per grazing season. Obviously, that amount of damage adds up over the years, and the devastating results can be clearly seen along much of the upper Río Fernando.

But despite the bacterial impairment and the sedimentation problems on these headwaters, the watershed plan being developed by Amigos Bravos in collaboration with the Forest Service will apparently condone continued intensive grazing on the streambanks of the upper Río Fernando.

It is a safe bet that neither the Amigos Bravos plan nor the revised Carson Forest plan will propose any long-range commitment to reduce livestock impacts on impaired streams--or to protect and restore riparian tree and shrub canopies, which are urgently needed to increase the capacity of surface aquifers in areas like upper Taos Canyon.

The truth is, entrenched federal bureaucrats are dedicated to protecting the profits of business interests engaged in all types of resource extraction on federal lands across the West, and the environmental impacts are not being fairly accounted for and remedied.

If we want to save the Río Fernando, we will have to demand more than the various institutions involved have been willing to do so far. Legally, a county ordinance would be a viable political solution to protect and restore the Río Fernando over the coming decades. Unfortunately, the county commissioners have a record since 2011 of avoiding responsibility and deferring to the Forest Service to properly manage this vital Taos water source, which that agency has failed to do.

A county ordinance to permanently protect the upper Río Fernando from intensive grazing would be a reasonable response by the voters to the failure of the Río Fernando Revitalization Collaborative to, well, get real. Those agencies have refused to address the documented problems of fecal pollution, habitat loss and watershed degradation that have been linked to livestock grazing on these streambanks. Their discussions have revolved around treating the symptoms of the river's problems and not the major cause, which is federal riparian grazing.

Time is running out for Americans to demand changes to drastically reduce the carbon emissions which are driving climate change. Here in Taos, we are also running out of time to save the Río Fernando. But, nationally and locally, the very institutions that voters are counting on for solutions are part of the problem.

Sadly, federal bureaucrats and professional environmentalists are planning to continue management practices here that will benefit one out-of-town livestock owner instead of safeguarding adequate flows of clean, cold water to Taos acequias and wells. The fix is in.

At this point, our best chance to save the Río Fernando is for concerned local citizens to demand a county ordinance to protect this historic river. So, what are we waiting for?

Jerry Yeargin is a Taos County resident.

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