Andrew Black , public lands field director for the New Mexico Wildlife Federation, has been working to help veterans for many years. For five years he worked in the offices of U.S. senators Jeff Bingaman and Martin Heinrich to improve quality and access to care in Northern New Mexico.
Experience has taught him, however, that care isn’t confined to the clinics that he fought to bring to Santa Fe and Ratón. The outdoors has a power to restore people that can’t be found anywhere else.
Black’s program aims “not only to get veterans outdoors and connect them to one another, but also to connect them to the landscape and the need to protect it.” Some of the areas where he now takes veterans on fly-fishing trips are important migration pathways for wildlife that are under threat.
“Development now threatens to disrupt and fragment these important corridors, which crisscross federal, state, tribal and private lands,” Black said.
Time on public lands is an important part of the healing process of many veterans, as Black first learned from watching his grandfather, a World War II veteran. After he returned from serving with General George S. Patton, he was one of Black’s first fishing partners. Black remembers watching his grandfather “creep up the river to sneak up on the next unsuspecting trout.
“It was a place that made sense. It became part of him and he became part of it.”
Those memories are part of what inspired Black to develop the program to bring veterans fly-fishing. He led a trip July 29-30 to the Río de Los Piños in the proposed San Antonio Special Management Area of Northern New Mexico and the Conejos River in the Spruce Hole area of southern Colorado.
The location of the fishing trip was no accident. The two rivers the veterans fished are part of an important wildlife corridor, an area whose future is at stake with the revision of the Carson National Forest Land Management Plan.
The areas where the veterans’ fishing trip took place are part of a crossing migration corridor for mule deer and pronghorn antelope and a vital wintering and calving area for elk. It is also home to bighorn sheep, lynx, mountain lions, river otters, black bears, golden eagles and Río Grande cutthroat trout.
The ability to move freely for food and breeding is critical to the survival of many of these species.
Among Black’s many reasons for bringing people to that area, in particular, is that, “You can’t protect what you don’t know is there.”
Wildlife on the move
The Upper Río Grande watershed stretches from Colorado to the Sandia Pueblo in New Mexico, and it is one of the best-connected wildlife landscapes in the nation, especially within the lower 48 states. As such, it spans many jurisdictions, including federal lands, New Mexico and Colorado state lands, tribal land and privately owned land.
Collaboration between these groups and the people who use these lands is crucial for wildlife protection.
Unlike most humans living in the Upper Río Grande watershed, animals move. They might have distinct territories for different seasons and activities, such as feeding and breeding. Their survival depends on their ability to move freely from, in the case of elk, for example, their summer feeding grounds to their winter calving areas.
“A wildlife corridor is a section of habitat that allows wildlife to move freely between two or more larger blocks of suitable habitat. Imagine, for example, a streamside forest spanning between two mountain ranges, where wildlife can get from one mountain to another by following the narrow corridor of forest along the stream,” said Karl D. Malcolm, southwest regional wildlife coordinator for the U.S. Forest Service.
Of particular importance are the places of connection between these areas, called Wildlife Doorways by Esteban Muldavin and Rayo McCollough in their 2016 report “Wildlife Doorways,” published by Natural Heritage of New Mexico.
The idea? It doesn’t matter if you get to keep your whole house if all the doors are locked and you can’t move from one room to another.
Protecting ecosystems involves many cooperating ideas and entities. Two basic levels of action are policy and planning.
It’s the job of policymakers to decide, broadly, what minimums must be met and the role of planners to decide how to make it happen.
Policy to protect
Federal, state and tribal law can outline protections and offer resources. One example of a federal bill relevant to the Upper Río Grande Watershed is the Wildlife Conservation Act to Safeguard America’s Biodiversity, proposed by Senator Tom Udall (D-NM) and Rep. Don Beyer (D-Va.), among others, in May 2019 in order to “give authority to key federal agencies to designate National Wildlife Corridors on federal lands ... that would boost biodiversity, protect ecosystems and help safeguard America’s most iconic species from a mass extinction crisis,” according to Udall’s website. Another example is the Recovering America’s Wildlife Act, reintroduced with changes this year and not yet passed.
On the state level, the newly passed New Mexico Wildlife Corridors Act (2019) has directed the New Mexico Department of Transportation and the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish to remove interruptions to wildlife migration routes by roads and other barriers. The bill “provides comprehensive guidance to state agencies for identifying, prioritizing and maintaining important areas of wildlife movement.”
Protecting the wildlife requires both managing the wildlife, which is the role of state fish and wildlife agencies and some federal agencies, and managing the habitat of the wildlife.
While much important habitat is on national forest, bears and bighorn sheep don’t read signs. They go where they go, which inevitably means crossing jurisdictional boundaries.
Movement of wildlife between places and the impact of water and air quality dictate that success will demand cooperation and community engagement.
“Facilitating wildlife movement within the Carson National Forest and across forest borders with other entities is an important priority being highlighted during forest plan revision, but the Carson has not sought to delineate wildlife corridors within the forest,” said Malcolm. “Rather, we have taken a landscape-level approach to improve wildlife habitat and movement. In places like the Carson we’re fortunate to have large and intact blocks of wildlife habitat – so many of our plan components address wildlife movement forest-wide, by focusing on the restoration of ecological conditions. The revised plan will also help us in managing infrastructure like fences, stream culverts and roads in ways that improve wildlife habitat connectivity and wildlife movement.”
What’s happening now
In response to the 2012 Planning Rule, an update to the National Forest Management Act of 1976, national forests are updating their management plans to “to reflect the advancements in ecology and conservation biology over the past 30 years,” according to the Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station.
Though Forest Service management plans are intended to be in place for 10-15 years, such revisions are a massive investment of time, energy and resources, and this is the first revision since 1986, when the Carson Plan was implemented. There’s no telling when the next revision will be, so it’s critical that the plan itself is able to adapt to new information, new science and new data.
How you can help
Get informed. The public meetings held by the Forest Service will offer summaries of the Draft Land Management Plan and the Draft Environment Impact Statement, volumes I and II. You might even read the Aug. 1 article in the Taos News delineating the five management plan alternatives before you go – see “Wildlife, forest thinning, recreation and water,” taosnews.com.
Attend the summit Aug. 20 held by the Upper Río Grande Wildlife Initiative, a meeting of state and federal planners, elected officials, hunters, anglers, scientists and private landowners.
Use your right to participate in the process. Comment on the proposal. Do you feel it does what is necessary to protect the Land of Enchantment for your grandchildren’s grandchildren to fish from the same rivers we do? Share your priorities with the Forest Service by commenting on the alternatives.
Go outside. The way of life in Northern New Mexico depends on an intersection of “land, water, wildlife and culture,” as Black put it. It’s “not just about protecting wildlife; it’s about protecting a way of life.
“We need to view the land as a community to which we belong,” said Black. “What is the Land of Enchantment without the land?”