A swath of sagebrush, piñon, juniper and ponderosa pine along the Río Grande Gorge northwest of Arroyo Hondo could see road closures and new trails.

The Taos Field Office of the Bureau of Land Management is considering a proposal that maximizes some 11 miles of existing trails and adds 22 miles of recreational trails on Horsethief Mesa. The public has until Saturday (Aug. 22) to comment on the plan.

Of the nearly 30 miles of inventoried roads on the mesa, some 23 miles are on BLM managed public land. And of those, about 5 miles of lightly used dirt roadways may be recommended for closure.

Three additional alternatives outlined for public comment in the environmental assessment emphasize either wildlife and habitat protection, both recreation and habitat protection or take no action.

While Horsethief Mesa includes parcels of private land intermixed with Carson National Forest public land, the bulk of it is part of the Río Grande del Norte National Monument, formed under the Obama administration in 2013.

Taos BLM manages the monument under a general 2012 Regional Management Plan because the official monument plan was never completed. A scoping document in that process was filed in 2017.

In February and again in early August, Taos News requested information from the BLM media spokesperson in Farmington on why the monument plan has been delayed.

So far, no update has been provided.

Neither Taos nor Farmington BLM could confirm before press time whether any of the existing trails were ever environmentally reviewed in the past.

New trails proposed

As part of its community outreach efforts, Taos BLM held a virtual Zoom meeting about the trails July 22. Some 55 people attended virtually.

The robust proposal of new trails is part of Horsethief Mesa Inventory and Conceptual Trails Plan, which was developed by Enchanted Circle Trails Association, a nonprofit led by Carl Colonius.

The trails association contracted with Taos BLM to inventory roads and trails, recommend road closures and propose new trails.

Their plan was presented to Taos BLM in October 2019 and now largely constitutes Alternative D of the environmental assessment.

Horsethief Mesa trails are popular with runners, mountain bikers and horseback riders. No off-road vehicles are now permitted on the trails, though they are allowed on some roads.

Colonius said in a phone interview that social trails develop when options feel limited by trail users, who then tend to go off cross-country and create unofficial routes.

"We would like (trail development) to be intentional, sustainable, well-designed and meet the needs of all users," he said.

Among other changes, the trail association proposal would utilize a left-hand turn lane from State Road 522 to allow safer access to the trail system via the country road that leads to the Arroyo Hondo transfer station.

From there, a new .12-mile connector road would be constructed to BLM land. Three-quarters of a mile farther, a proposed trailhead with 35 parking spaces and pit toilets, horse-trailer parking and turnaround, plus five dispersed camping sites would be built.

The trails association plan projects that additional parking would be needed to accommodate events.

A core group of trails would feature beginning, intermediate and advanced levels of difficulty.

Some new connector trails would lead under State Road 522 via culverts to Carson National Forest trails in the meadows below the D.H. Lawrence property. A spokesperson for the property, owned by University of New Mexico, was unable to reply to a request for comment before press time.

Destination worthy

Before starting Enchanted Circle Trails Association in 2016, Colonius was the executive director for 20 years of Rocky Mountain Youth Corps. He is a member of Taos Mountain Bike Association - a chapter of International Mountain Bicycling Association - as well as mountain bike groups in Santa Fe and Albuquerque.

He said the idea for a "destination worthy" trail system came from Taos Mountain Bike Association, a group that is also a member of his Enchanted Circle Trails Association.

According to Colonius, a "destination worthy" trail system entails several key characteristics: a formal trailhead with safe and easily accessible parking; more technical trails that would be hand-constructed; and an overall trail experience that would attract visitors, "something more than a 10-mile loop," he added.

Colonius referenced mountain biking trails in Buena Vista, Colorado, as examples of the kind of well-designed single-track trails possible on Horsethief Mesa.

Conservation concerns

But new trails on the mesa are of great concern to conservation-minded individuals and organizations.

Sangre de Cristo Audubon, the Santa Fe and Northern New Mexico chapter of National Audubon Society, contends in a written response to the BLM environmental assessment that the increase in trails is inconsistent with the principles and founding documents of the monument.

"To base this project on a clearly outdated Regional Management Plan seven years after the proclamation of the monument is inexcusable," wrote Thomas Jervis, president of Sangre de Cristo Audubon.

Many bird species are dependent on the habitat of Horsethief Mesa. Of particular concern to Audubon is the iconic pinyon jay, whose population has declined precipitously, according to recent research. Encroaching development and the effects of climate change are taking a toll on the species.

The pinyon jay is listed as a species of conservation concern by Taos BLM.

Regarding the mesa's habitat, Jervis wrote, "There is potential for impacts on breeding, roosting and foraging pinyon jays. At a minimum, the BLM should sponsor surveys to determine if a flock is using the area and if there is a nesting colony there."

Sangre de Cristo Audubon supports a buffer of at least 500 yards around any nesting colony.

"We greatly prefer the Alternative B proposal, which maintains good opportunities for mountain bikers but protects the resource as appropriate to the monument proclamation," wrote Jervis.

According to Taos BLM, new trails have not yet been screened for cultural, archaeological or other resources.

The public has until Saturday (Aug. 22) to learn more about the project and submit comments at eplanning.blm.gov/eplanning-ui/project/1505217/510 or by mail to BLM at: Horsethief Mesa TMP, 226 Cruz Alta Road, Taos, NM 87571.

For more information, contact Tami Torres, outdoor recreation planner, by email at ttorres@blm.gov.

Meg Scherch Peterson writes about wildlife and water in the Río Grande watershed. She is a member of Audubon.

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