Environment

Miranda Canyon plagued by trash, grafitti, erosion

Forest Service, advocates consider temporary closure of area to vehicle access

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On a perfect autumn afternoon, four pickup trucks made their way slowly along the rutted roads of Miranda Canyon, south of Taos.

The group visiting the canyon this day was not here to appreciate the natural beauty of the canyon’s craggy walls and green meadows. They came to see the destruction caused by humans from dumping trash, cutting live trees and defacing ancient rock formations with graffiti.

Pam and Johnny MacArthur, who frequently visit Miranda Canyon on horseback, were part of the group that also included representatives from the Carson National Forest and Taos County Code Enforcement.

At the start of the trip, the law enforcement officer for the Carson and Taos County Code Enforcement official Lorenzo Gutierrez had stopped to talk to people in a white SUV about the possibility that they were dumping illegally in the canyon.

Then, the group walked up a hill past old tires, garbage and discarded wooden pallets. The rock outcropping is Precambrian granite, older than 500 million years, according to research by Johnny MacArthur. As they rounded the corner, graffiti in black, white and red stood out stark and ugly against the rocks. MacArthur said, “When I saw this graffiti, I was really angry and saddened.”

Summing up all the damage that has happened to the canyon over decades, Pam MacArthur said, “It is such a beautiful place; an entryway into the Taos Valley and yet it is marred by rampant illegal trash dumping – by erosion and damage to the watershed caused by off-road vehicle use.”

Recommending a short-term closure

The MacArthurs are members of the Miranda Canyon Commission, a group convened two years ago to look at both opportunities and the current human impacts on the land. The group will make suggestions on the future of the area to the Carson National Forest, which now owns the land. The recommendations will be analyzed in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act, widely known by its acronym NEPA.

The commission, also called the Miranda Canyon Circle Collaborative, was formed in 2017 with representatives from the Taos and Picuris Pueblos, the Llano Quemado community, acequias, Cristóbal de la Serna Land Grant, equestrian, environmental, youth, motorized and nonmotorized recreation groups, along with the Taos County commissioners and Taos County Code Enforcement with a total 12 representatives and two nonvoting members of the Carson staff.

The community came together in February 2017 at the Llano Quemado Community Center to voice concerns about the human impacts at Miranda Canyon.

The commission has been meeting to develop both a short-term and a long-term community management plan for Miranda Canyon and the surrounding area. The commission will draft the long-term plan and deliver it to the Carson by July 1, 2020. The commission has affirmed that grazing allotments, water rights and acequias are all governed by state and federal rules, regulations and laws and cannot be superseded by any actions of the group.

A preliminary recommendation of the commission is a short-term closure to motorized vehicles for at least a year to try to stop the current destruction. Activities like hiking, horseback riding, bicycling and traditional uses like cattle grazing in compliance with Carson permits would still be allowed.

Before this action is taken, the commission will hear from the public. The community is invited to learn about the issues at Miranda Canyon and to express their opinion by joining a community field trip on Saturday (Oct. 12) and by attending a community meeting on Nov. 7. (See sidebar for details.) The commission is requesting feedback through an online survey, as well.

History and natural setting

From prehistoric times, Native peoples have visited Miranda Canyon. Today, it remains important to the people of the Taos and Picuris Pueblos. The canyon was part of Cristóbal de la Serna land grant and contains a portion of an old road, thought to be the Camino Real.

The 5,000 acre parcel includes the northwest slope of Picuris Peak and is the source of water for the nearby communities of Llano Quemado and Ranchos de Taos. According to the Carson National Forest, the long narrow parcel ranges in elevation from 7,200 feet to 10,801 feet and connects a wide diversity of habitats, including low-elevation sagebrush and piñon juniper, meadows and riparian vegetation, and high-elevation mixed conifer forests with large aspen stands.

The canyon will be important in the future for maintaining habitat connectivity during climate adaptation when species such as elk may increasingly rely on Miranda Canyon to move among shifting habitat types and to access water sources. Unique geologic features include a small volcano and some rock outcroppings as old as 1.7 billion years old.

Plans for development and public purchase

When Miranda Canyon was in private hands, there was a proposal by Weimer Properties to develop the area. The community opposed the development in part because it included extensive private wells that could interfere with water delivery to users in nearby communities.

The Trust for Public Land agreed to buy the 5,000-acre property in January 2011 from Weimer Properties LLC. The Carson National Forest purchased the property in phases from The Trust for Public Lands using a $8.758 million grant from the Land and Water Conservation Fund, a federal government source for protecting land, along with $2 million from other sources.

The Carson staff began work with community partners to develop plans to manage recreation, hunting, camping and woodcutting, along with other activities, while maintaining the quality of the watershed.

The biggest challenge is how to prevent destruction of the canyon by people.

Vision and mitigation

In the upcoming discussions, there will be two primary areas of focus, according to Amy Simms, public service staff officer for the Carson. “First, there is an intent to create a vision and identify opportunities for recreation and watershed protection and conservation into the future,” explained Simms. “Second, there is a need to clean up and mitigate the trash dumping, illegal tree cutting and erosion of existing roads.”

The Carson law enforcement officer issues tickets to those dumping or defacing public lands. Gutierrez of Taos County Code Enforcement spends a lot of his time in Miranda Canyon, identifying those who are dumping trash and working with them to clean up the mess. He said that community volunteers come out to help clean up in cooperation in Amigo Bravos, Enchanted Circle Trails Association and Taos Saddle Club.

“I couldn’t do this without all the assistance from volunteers,” said Gutierrez. “I hope that everyone understands that the effort of the Miranda Canyon Commission is not about taking anything away from anyone. It is about protecting the land so that our children and grandchildren can enjoy it. As public land, it belongs to all of us.”

Miranda Canyon Field Trip Overview

Saturday (Oct. 12) 10 a.m. to 1 p.m.

Llano Quemado Community Center

The Miranda Canyon Commission invites community members to attend a community field trip to Miranda Canyon to learn more about the ongoing management challenges and opportunities.

The field trip will start at the Llano Quemado Community Center. Field trip participants will park their cars at the community center and carpool for a short ride into the canyon. The commission will provide supervision for vehicles left at the community center.

This is primarily a walking field trip. Field trip participants should expect to be in the canyon for a maximum of three hours and should prepare accordingly. Participants should wear hiking shoes and bring water, snacks and wet/cold weather gear. Stops include opportunities to see trash dumping, erosion, graffiti, activity and damage to the road and to natural resources. Participants are encouraged to consider how Miranda Canyon can serve as a community asset once these problems are addressed.

RSVPs are preferred but not required, by using this link: tinyurl.com/yy2au3cb or by calling Calley Schubert at (802) 345-8654.

Miranda Canyon Commission open house

There will be an open house meeting at the Llano Quemado Community Center on Nov. 7 from noon to 8 p.m. This event will focus on getting community ideas for future management and community access to Miranda.

Survey

Another way to make your voice heard is to take a survey in response to questions posed by the Miranda Canyon Commission. Follow this link: tinyurl.com/yylztbun.

Read more about the area

“Enchantment and Exploitation: The Life and Hard Times of a New Mexico Mountain Range,” by William deBuys (UNM Press, 2015)

“Taos: A Topical History,” edited by Corina Santistevan (Museum of New Mexico Press, 2013)

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