Since 2002, we have been the chief organizer of a collaborative restoration project along Comanche Creek, located in the western half of the Valle Vidal unit of the Carson National Forest, near the Colorado state line. This project is funded by the EPA, under its Clean Water Act mandate, and includes the Forest Service, the New Mexico Environment Department - Surface Water Quality Bureau, New Mexico Game & Fish, Trout Unlimited-Truchas Chapter, New Mexico Trout, the Valle Vidal Grazing Association, the Youth Conservation Corps, Zeedyk Ecological Consulting, Rangeland Hands, Resource Management Services, Stream Dynamics and others.
There are two principle goals to this project: (1) to address persistent water quality concerns in Comanche Creek; and (2) to assist in recovery efforts for the Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout, a native species that is struggling to remain viable. Not surprisingly, the two are linked.
After decades of hard use, the 100,000-acre Valle Vidal unit was donated to the Forest Service by a private corporation in 1981 for a substantial tax break. Much of the West's recent history could be read into the condition of the land at the time of the transfer: massive overgrazing by 6000 head of cattle (there are only 800 today), heavy logging and road-building everywhere, and a historic gold mining district.
Since 1981, a concerted and innovative effort was made on the part of the Forest Service, the grazing permittees, and various conservation organizations to heal the Comanche Creek watershed. A herder was hired by the grazing association, willows were planted along the streambanks, and a mile-long elk exclosure was constructed on the creek.
These efforts helped, but the creek, and its fish population, continued to struggle toward recovery. In 2001, The Quivira Coalition was approached by the head of New Mexico Trout seeking our assistance in creating a larger project. We readily agreed to help.
Here is a quick list of the fieldwork completed by the team to date:
- Established baseline monitoring points throughout the watershed. Surveyed and GPS mapped the creek, marking willow clumps and points of severe erosion.
- Through educational workshops, constructed numerous vanes in the creek in order to protect eroding stream banks, under the supervision of Bill Zeedyk.
- With the assistance of the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps and volunteers from New Mexico Trout, Trout Unlimited, Albuquerque Wildlife Federation and The Quivira Coalition, over sixty mini-elk exclosures were constructed around key willow clumps along the creek, which has allowed them to grow and shade the water, which is critical for the Rio Grande Cutthroat Trout.
- Bill Zeedyk and Steve Carson inventoried the roads, including the main road, and prioritized them for repair according to how much eroded material they were pouring into the creek (this was a far more serious problem than many realized).
- In 2004, substantial repair of the worst roads was done by the Forest Service.
- Numerous headcuts in various drainages were repaired, also reducing erosion.
We believe that all this work is having a significant positive impact - not only on the creek, and its native inhabitants, but also on the overall way we handle unhealthy land in the West. The usual route is confrontational - someone sues or threatens to sue someone, usually an agency, over a conservation crisis. Gridlock ensues, and as a result, very little changes on the ground, where it matters most.
The Comanche Creek approach has been entirely different. By putting together a "braintrust" and employing a great deal of muscles, we put most of our energy on the land, targeted at real problems, such as poorly designed and installed road culverts.
The key is the diversity of knowledge and opinion brought to the process - everybody looks at the creek from a slightly different perspective, causing creative energy to happen. As a result, we are making real progress on "the back forty" - the place where Aldo Leopold noted it mattered most.