'Loved to death': A clash over fragile Northern New Mexico badlands

·9 min read

Dec. 5—NAMBÉ — A look of disappointment flashed across Ed MacKerrow's face Friday as he surveyed the damage a mountain biker had left behind on the fragile landscape of the Nambé Badlands north of Santa Fe.

"These folks are just going gonzo, you know, stunt riding off of hoodoos and fragile desert formations," MacKerrow said as he stood atop a ridge overlooking the stunning scenery.

"It's sad, too, because look at that beautiful desert vegetation there with the red tips on it," he said, motioning toward a plant on a steep and once-pristine hillside now scarred with bicycle tracks.

"Isn't it pretty?" he asked, referring to the vegetation. "I mean, look at that. And now you've got a ridge cut right behind it, and it will keep eroding."

Once somewhat of a secret, the badlands — nearly 21,000 acres of public land — have become increasingly popular in recent years as word spread over the internet and even more after the coronavirus pandemic drove people outdoors.

More people, though, sometimes means more problems.

In the case of the badlands, it's meant more trash, traffic and mountain bikers riding off trails and even carving new paths — a concern that existed long before the pandemic and one that is now igniting a debate over whether or not more recently established trails should remain open.

Trail inventory

The badlands, arguably one of the most scenic spots in Northern New Mexico, have turned into a battleground over public access as the Bureau of Land Management works on a plan for the property with official trail designations.

At the heart of the dispute is whether only so-called legacy trails, essentially decades-old livestock trails, should remain open and newer trails closed off.

"People on both sides will probably, you know, have anxiety on decisions made in the end," said Pamela Mathis, BLM field manager for the Taos Field Office. "Recreationalists will want more and perhaps the neighbors would want less."

The long-simmering issue is coming to a head.

The BLM is in the midst of designating roads and trails in the area through a public process known as a travel management plan. The planning process for the badlands started around 2012 and remains incomplete, a source of frustration for some as new trails continue to show up in the delicate terrain.

Mathis, who joined the Taos Field Office earlier this year and inherited the long-delayed public planning process, said she hopes to complete the plan by the end of next year, though she acknowledged staffing and other challenges could get in the way.

"The travel management plan itself, once you have a plan, will actually designate routes as opened or closed or for limited use," Mathis said.

The Friends of the Nambé Badlands, a nonprofit formed by mountain bikers, hikers and naturalists, is advocating for the closure of what it calls "illegal trails" created since the public planning process was initiated in 2012. A map on the group's website shows multiple trails that would meet the criteria.

The group maintains such trails shouldn't even be included in the BLM's inventory for consideration.

"This area went under a formal study back in [2012]," said Dave Kraig, the group's vice president. "At that time, BLM said ... there's not supposed to be any trails going in until we've completed this management plan and all these environmental studies. ... And instead of that, enormous numbers of illegal trails have gone in, and they're including all these new trails [in the inventory] and saying they're all the same."

Kraig and other members of the group suspect the illegal trails were constructed with the express intent of expanding the network before the public planning process was completed.

"We think it serves as an impetus for people to say, 'We got to get as many trails as we can in right now before the process,' " he said. "It just feels like a very slanted playing field."

Kraig said a BLM official has said all trails will be considered equally in the evaluation process.

Mathis said a complete inventory, the first step in the process, is necessary for a thorough evaluation.

"If we do not include all of that in our base inventory, then they won't be analyzed and they won't be considered, and so this is hard for the residents down there who do not favor trails or do not favor additional recreation," she said. "They want to know why we're including everything that's there, and we are so that we can conduct an environmental analysis so that we can make a scientific and educated decision on whether or not to open, close or limit it."

Kraig said considering trails created since 2012 for formal designation in the travel management plan rewards bad behavior.

"To do so effectively condones illegal activities and encourages those activities to continue here and elsewhere," he said. "We believe that BLM and the people that created the illegal trails should work together to close them and attempt to rehabilitate the damaged areas."

A festering dispute

In the meantime, all trails remain open because the travel management plan hasn't been completed.

MacKerrow, president of the friends group and an avid mountain biker himself, said the group doesn't oppose new trails.

"We're all for it," he said. "Let's just do it right and follow the rules for a number of reasons. Number one is to protect the resources, and number two is not to give carte blanche to illegal trail builders."

The group created a website that includes photos taken from the Santa Fe Fat Tire Society Facebook page showing unidentified individuals using tools to construct new trails by hand, either in 2011 or 2012. The photos have since been deleted from the biking club's Facebook page, according to the friends group, which took screenshots.

After residents complained to the BLM, the new trails were closed and covered up, the website states.

But the building of new trails didn't stop.

"In 2019 The Santa Fe Fat Tire Society mountain bike club resurrected their unauthorized, and potentially illegal, trail building," the friends group's website states. "This second push of building new trails has been extensive, constructing almost as many new trail miles as the existing trail network."

Kyle Klain, president of the bike club, said "there has been a lot of illegal trail building" on the badlands, but it hasn't been sanctioned by the club.

"I can tell you factually that the club itself has not had an organized trail day or any sort of construction or aware of any sort of organized attempt to build trails out there in the past decade," he said. "We've been working with the BLM to get approval for it, but we never got approval and so we haven't done anything."

Klain indicated the trail building documented in photos that were posted on the bike club's Facebook page had the blessing of the BLM.

"At the time, the BLM was excited to get some trails built and proposed, and then my understanding is once they reviewed what was in place legally, the rug was pulled out. They said, 'Hey, we can't do this. Put everything on pause.' And that's exactly what we did. We had that one day when I think people jumped the gun a little bit on all sides to do some activity back in 2011, but outside of that, we haven't lifted a finger building anything out there."

The club, Klain said, has been waiting for the travel management plan "to come to life" for years.

"I'm really glad that BLM is finally addressing this because this has kind of been festering for a decade now," he said.

Asked whether the club would advocate for keeping all existing trails open, Klain said the decision rests with the BLM.

"At the end of the day, of course we advocate for mountain bikers. That's the role of our club," he said. "But we don't advocate for illegal trails, so it's very disheartening for us to get blamed for this activity when we've been waiting very patiently for this travel management plan to come to life."

'Loved to death'

MacKerrow, a scientist, said time is of the essence.

The soil in the so-called Sombrillo Area of Critical Environmental Concern, which was created in 1988 to protect the paleontological and cultural resources in the area, is extremely fragile, he said.

"Cryptobiotic crusts stabilize this fragile soil," he said. "Bike trails across the cryptobiotic crust kill it."

Mathis, the BLM field manager, said an environmental analysis is forthcoming.

But until the travel management plan is complete, the badlands remain wide open to the public.

BLM lands are open for casual use unless the agency has officially designated an area off-limits.

"It may not be the best thing for the environment. It may not be what conservationists want. It may not be what the BLM wants," Mathis said. "But it is not illegal until and unless we can close the route. That's exactly why we need to know where these [trails] are, so we can analyze them. We can make that determination and then we can implement."

Mathis said the agency has increased its law enforcement presence in the area.

Santa Fe County also has taken action.

The county installed multiple "no parking" signs at the end of County Road 113, which snakes through a residential area and ends at one of two access points to the badlands. Before the signs were installed, more than 20 automobiles could park at the end of the road. The legal parking area now has been reduced to about six vehicles.

Area residents say a large influx of visitors was clogging the end of the road, and some visitors were behaving badly, from partying to defecating.

"Santa Fe County worked closely with the residents, as well as BLM, to ensure we addressed the vehicles parked within the County right-of-way," county spokeswoman Carmelina Hart wrote in an email.

The "no parking" signs were installed "to ensure emergency vehicles could access this area and there was enough room to maneuver" large firetrucks, Hart wrote.

"The County's involvement in this effort was to limit the congestion at the end of this road," she added.

Mathis said the pandemic has put a stress on all public lands, not just the badlands.

"What all the federal agencies saw all over the nation but particularly in the West was a huge influx of people going outdoors, visiting public lands," she said.

"I've even heard the phrase, 'Loved to death,' " she added. "I would say that all of the recreation sites and not just BLM, many of our sister agencies, have been loved to death. On one hand, folks have rediscovered and really value their public lands, and we really welcome that. It's almost like a rebirth or a rediscovery of open space and the value of these public lands. On the other hand, it was very sudden and there was so much use because everything else was locked down and there was nowhere else for people to go."

Follow Daniel J. Chacón on Twitter @danieljchacon.

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