Río Fernando is worth fighting for until the river improves

By Jerry Yeargin
Posted 11/7/19

The U.S. Forest Service controls millions of acres in Northern New Mexico. But only a tiny fraction of that land consists of wetlands and streams. So it makes sense for federal land managers to treat vulnerable riparian areas differently than rangeland.

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Río Fernando is worth fighting for until the river improves

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The U.S. Forest Service controls millions of acres in Northern New Mexico. But only a tiny fraction of that land consists of wetlands and streams. So it makes sense for federal land managers to treat vulnerable riparian areas differently than rangeland.

Forest Service guidelines set different standards for the two types of land. The rangeland grazing guideline calls for "40-50 percent utilization." That means, ideally, cattle would be moved when half of the forage or more is still in place. That is good for the environment.

The problem is that a different, much more intensive standard is used for streams and wetlands, where almost none of the vegetation is expected to remain after livestock grazing - only "4-inch stubble." Using this guideline for many decades has resulted in widespread losses of the vegetative cover along some rivers and streams. There is a word for this: desertification.

The soil compaction, bank destabilization, water contamination and loss of shade and wildlife cover that can be seen along much of the upper Río Fernando is caused by the intensive grazing which is scheduled on these streambanks even though nearby rangeland areas are underused, with plenty of forage.

The reason for the chronic water problems on the upper Río Fernando would seem obvious to anyone familiar with the behavior of cattle near streams. These lethargic animals, unlike wildlife, do not move on after drinking. They would rather hang out on the water indefinitely. Cattle owners know that if you want to keep cows out of a stream or spring, you have to fence them out.

Environmentally sound and proven riparian protection fences, usually made with treated wooden posts, use wildlife-friendly designs to protect damaged streams from livestock impacts while allowing access for wildlife. Also, by using a feature called a "water gap," the cattle can still get water from the stream in some places.

I believe grazing managers have a responsibility to phase in wildlife-friendly fences to protect impaired streams, in their own best interests. Experience on the Río Fernando has shown that if the herd stays near the river during the grazing season, the water becomes so polluted with bacteria that it doesn't even meet water quality standards for livestock watering.

So far, the cattle on the upper Río Fernando seem to be OK. But what about the threats to wildlife, fish, native plants and trees - and, last but not least, the people downstream?

Federal managers and watershed planners don't seem to want to ask those questions. For example, the Forest Service recently changed its interpretation of the National Environmental Policy Act - specifically to avoid having to make many environmental assessments and environmental impact statements in the future.

The environmental assessment for this grazing allotment was done in 2009, but it did not admit water sampling data. The upper Río Fernando was listed as impaired with bacteria back in 2014, but the Forest Service still has not changed riparian grazing schedules to reduce bacteria levels. Disappointingly, Amigos Bravos has not opposed the Forest Service's plan to continue intensive grazing all along the upper Río Fernando.

The much talked-about Carson Forest planning process has not addressed water quality results from the upper Río Fernando although hundreds of water samples have been collected there since 2005 by Sierra Club volunteers, the New Mexico Environment Department, Forest Service hydrologists and Amigos Bravos.

That evidence has consistently shown frequent spikes of very high bacteria levels on the upper Río Fernando linked to cattle grazing. This extensive water sampling and other evidence shows that if the Río Fernando is going to survive, there will have to be dramatic changes in management methods on these headwaters. Unfortunately, the regional Forest Service bureaucracy continues to use an outdated, misguided interpretation of the Taylor Grazing Act to justify grazing on almost all of the land in New Mexico's national forests.

Actually, federal regulations and grazing contracts explicitly authorize any management changes that are needed to protect water resources in particular cases, like the Río Fernando. But those regulations are being selectively ignored for the convenience and profit of the grazing permittee - a rancher based in Abiquiú. Taos acequia associations and thousands of other local water users are paying the price in the form of water shortages, failing wells, and poor water quality.

Like they say, whiskey is for drinking and water is for fighting. The Río Fernando is worth fighting for.

Jerry Yeargin lives in Taos Canyon.

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