‘Rivers are my mission’

Pilar conservationist, river guide Steve Harris honored at Roundhouse

By Cody Hooks
chooks@taosnews.com
Posted 2/21/19

If you spend enough time on the river, eventually something will shift and “a deep understanding, a deep commitment” begins to well in your being.

That’s what happened for Steve …

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‘Rivers are my mission’

Pilar conservationist, river guide Steve Harris honored at Roundhouse

Posted

If you spend enough time on the river, eventually something will shift and “a deep understanding, a deep commitment” begins to well in your being.

That’s what happened for Steve Harris, a river guide, conservationist and Pilar resident who was honored at the Roundhouse Tuesday (Feb. 19) for his years of dedication to the Río Grande and the rivers of New Mexico.

The New Mexico Bureau of Geology and Mineral Resources gave Harris the 2019 Earth Science Achievement Award for Public Service and Public Policy.

Harris said that much of his work in the Southwest and the Land of Enchantment has centered around “programs, projects and activities that promote New Mexico’s rivers staying healthy” for generations to come. “This is a very prestigious award and I’m very proud to have gotten it,” he said.

Harris was born in Oklahoma and grew up canoeing and playing on the water. He became a river guide in 1974, started Far-Flung Adventures, a river rafting company, in 1976 and then re-located to Taos County in 1992. He also started Río Grande Restoration, a nonprofit dedicated to seeing the Río Grande’s ecosystems brought back to health.

Aside from taking people down the Río Grande and Río Chama for float trips or whitewater rafting, Harris has spent his off seasons and after-work hours driving from corner to corner of the state (and indeed, across the country) to learn about the Río Grande river basin and do what he can to steer water policy, legislation and management toward more collaboration. But anyone who has worked with government agencies and contentious water issues knows that goal is hardly ever an easy on to achieve.

“I’ve tried a lot of things that didn’t work,” he said.

But he took notes from the river. “Out there, you have to be very open to learning lessons and discarding something you thought was true.”

So over the years, he’s learned how to look for the right time and opportunity to advance good science, data collection and projects that promote the health of the Río Grande and other rivers. “It’s sort of like probing for an opening,” he said.

And he’s worked to “bring agencies and local people together on equal footing,” he said.

“The most valuable thing Steven’s done over the years is build relationships between communities that traditionally are at odds — conservationists, farmers and ranchers,” said Jim O’Donnell, conservation writer and photographer. “Back in the 90s, people were literally at each others throats. People are working together much better now. He’s just done a lot to bridge the gaps that keep us from understanding each other and where we’re coming from.” 

Harris said he never turns down a chance to work with kids and classrooms because, “ultimately, a river has lasted for generations and can either be altered beyond recognition or protected for generations.”

After spending decades working around the state, country and even internationally on the Río Grande, he’s taking some time to work at a very local level on the Río Chama Flow Project, a collaborative conservation initiative focusing on 100 miles of that river.

For those interested in the Río Chama, water management and collaborative conservation, Harris noted the Río Chama Watershed Congreso will be happening this Saturday (Feb. 23) at Ghost Ranch Education and Retreat Center in Abiquiu. Visit sanjuanchama.org for more information.

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