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Back in business: Southfork Campsite near Ruidoso reopens after being damaged by fire and flooding

More than 1,000 shrubs and trees were planted in the riparian area above the campground to help stabilize the stream banks. (Courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service)

Eight years ago, the Little Bear Fire came roaring down from the mountains and swept through the popular Southfork Campground in the Smokey Bear Ranger District near Ruidoso.

“The fire came down Southfork Canyon,” said Laura Rabon, U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman. “It burned part of the campground.”

And not long after that, the rains fell.

“Then what happened, with subsequent flooding, it took out another large chunk,” she said. “It flooded it with mud, silt and dead and downed trees. The part of that that hadn’t burned was unusable after the flooding.”

The Forest Service was forced to close the popular campground.

Over the ensuing eight years, little by little, the Forest Service was able to work on the campground and this year it was finally opened back up to the public.

“When I arrived in 2016, I asked the staff about their top three things they wanted to see get done on the district. Every person said get Southfork Campground open,” said District Ranger Jodie Canfield. “It’s taken a lot of time, and effort from the entire forest and our partners, as well as scraping up money every year to get us to this point. The setbacks were many and postponed us from opening many times. I am really excited to offer this opportunity to the public once again, especially given the uptick in visitation we’ve seen this year.”

Because of the popularity of the campground, the Forest Service did an assessment in 2014 “and developed a plan if they were to rehabilitate, and restore, what would need to happen” Rabon said. “What was discovered, they were going to need to do a lot of work.”

New signage was installed after the Little Bear Fire and subsequent flooding damaged the campground in 2012. (Courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service)

But the Southfork Campground is one of the oldest established campgrounds on the Lincoln National Forest, dating back to the 1960s. Before 2012, it was also one of the most popular because of the river and access to the White Mountain Wilderness on Trail 19.

“Before it burned, it was sold out almost every single night,” Rabon said. “And we heard loud and clear from the community that they wanted it restored.”

The fire had melted all the plumbing within campground so it all needed to be replaced, she said. The banks for a nearby stream needed to be stabilized, plus a about 1,000 native plants and trees needed to be planted in the riparian area. Two bathroom structures needed to replaced and a third restored. A significant amount of debris, mud and silt had to be cleaned up and hauled off. A number of hazard trees that had burned but not yet fallen had to be cut down and hauled off.

Twenty acres near the campground was planted with ponderosa and Douglas fir seedlings.

The campsites have been reduced from 60 to 53, and while the health restrictions are in order, it will be limited to 50% capacity, she said.

If there was one saving grace it was that a lot of the ground fuel that might have caused the fire to do even more damage had already been used by campground visitors so a fair number of trees did survive and remain in place to provide shade.

View from Southfork looking into the White Mountain Wilderness after the Little Bear Fire in 2012. The Little Bear Fire was started by lightning and burned over part of the Southfork Campground. (Courtesy of the U.S. Forest Service)

In 2017, the Mexican Spotted Owl, a threatened species, was discovered living in the campground. It likely moved into the campground because its usual habitat had been destroyed by the Little Bear Fire. The Lincoln National Forest began the required consultation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for the newly discovered breeding pair, which temporarily postponed work in the campground during the breeding season.

“One of the reasons it took so long to do the restoration, it was expensive,” said Rabon, who didn’t have an exact amount for the work. “And we were having to budget for that every single year and we did put quite a bit of money to restoring the campground.”