Two years ago, the Forest Service invested in some badly needed improvements along the Pecos River in the form of new latrines and animal-proof trash bins.
Then, as recently as April 1 and just as the spring outdoor recreation season was getting underway, the Forest Service took away trash bins and padlocked bathrooms in several of the same areas, which are used by thousands of New Mexicans on any given weekend.
Pointing to federal budget uncertainties, the Forest Service says it can’t afford to maintain the areas. Agency spokesmen also said they can’t cut budgets for some facilities while preserving full services in others.
Maybe so, but as Pecos-area residents and river enthusiasts also pointed out last week, the Forest Service has so far gotten only an 8 percent cut in funding, but has cut its the budget for operation and maintenance at recreation areas by 25 percent.
And while we understand in principle that applying budget cuts across the board is one way of lessening their impact on individuals, be they people or programs or recreation areas, that strategy ignores some real consequences of popularity and heavy use.
The Pecos River valley from the town all the way up to the wilderness boundary attracts tens of thousands of day-trippers every season. Two of the half-dozen or so Forest Service campgrounds along the river are the most heavily used in the state. Surely it makes better sense to maintain services for so many people even if it means cutting amenities in areas where fewer people venture.
That said, it should be noted that trash — including human waste — has long been a problem along the Pecos. And shame on those who think nothing of throwing trash on the ground and worse. But in the last several years, local government, area businesses and just plain citizens have banded together in an effort to improve the situation.
And they have done so — the river is finally off the “impaired” waters list, due to septic tank and cesspool cleanup. Business have adopted stretches of river and highway to help control trash; the Forest Service’s trash barrels and potties have helped, too. Even the area’s legislators have gotten into the act — Santa Fe’s Rep. Lucky Varela, who grew up in Pecos, has tried several years running to get the upper Pecos River declared a state park, an effort he thinks can only increase the resources available to improve the area.
By pulling basic services along the Pecos, the Forest Service has robbed these community efforts of momentum, threatening to set the clean-up effort back at least five years.
And by applying its one-size-fits-all budget-cutting policy across the board, instead of evaluating individual programs, the agency deserves comparison with Congress, where across-the-board ideologues are likewise responsible for the ongoing budget war, the real root of the Pecos River’s latest problems.