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Beloved river canyon in bull’s-eye

Like the rest of us, residents of the village of Pecos and Pecos Canyon prayed for rain this spring.

That was before the Tres Lagunas Fire about midway through the scenic and popular canyon, and the Jaroso Fire just north of the canyon.

Now, it’s hard to know what to pray for.

Because when it rains – and it will someday, maybe soon – the water will rush off the fire-scarred steep mountain slopes, washing thousands of tons of ash, soil, boulders, trees and more into the Pecos River and its tributaries.

It will flood. Lives and property will be at risk. The banks of the river will be eroded. There will be a fish kill. The river could be contaminated with septic waste and household chemicals.

Local, state and federal government agencies, along with private landowners, are working to lessen the impacts. “But we will not stop anything,” says Rhonda Stewart, who headed the U.S. Forest Service team that assessed the risks caused by the Tres Lagunas Fire, which has burned more than 10,000 acres but is nearly fully contained.

At least some part of the Pecos Canyon south of Terrero will likely remain closed to public recreation for at least two years, because of a continuing threat of flooding. Holy Ghost Canyon will also remain closed for years.

The future of the canyon north of the community of Terrero is less clear. The Jaroso Fire – still far from being contained – is burning south of Pecos Baldy near the Pecos River.

It could be weeks before the Forest Service is able to assess the damage and probable after-effects of the Jaroso Fire.

Pecos Canyon, about 25 miles southeast of Santa Fe, is one of New Mexico’s crown jewels and one of its most popular mountain recreation areas.

N.M. 63 winds through the 17-mile canyon, climbing in elevation through piñon, ponderosa, spruce and other conifers. From Terrero to its headwaters, the Pecos River is federally designated as wild and scenic.

After moving to New Mexico in 1989, I spent a lot of time in Pecos Canyon.

I learned an early lesson in New Mexico cuisine while stopping for lunch one day at the Pecos Drive-In: A chile dog here isn’t the same as a chili dog back East.

At Monastery Lake at the mouth of the Pecos Canyon, I mastered the fine art of spin-fishing for trout with a clear plastic bubble and a Pistol Pete lure.

Sometimes, I would head farther up the canyon, past Terrero, and scramble down a mountainside to fly-fish the Pecos River. Or I would head to one of its tributaries to catch the native and colorful Rio Grande cutthroat.

But it’s been years since I’ve fished in the Pecos Canyon, in large part because of the crowds and the damage that has been caused to the canyon. Some people say we have loved the canyon to death, but I wouldn’t call it love.

Both the U.S. Forest Service and the state Department of Game and Fish manage recreation sites in the canyon, and a 2008 report prepared by the Forest Service painted a grim picture.

Among the problems cited by the report: too many vehicles, campgrounds in poor condition, violence, trash, alcohol abuse, rowdy campers, stream bank erosion and collapse, and off-road and even in-river vehicle use.

A couple years ago, I volunteered with schoolchildren and others to help pick up trash at Monastery Lake, and in and around the Terrero Campground. Lots of beer cans and bottles, a hypodermic needle, fishing line, toilet paper, human waste, clothes and more.

I visited Monastery Lake a few weeks after the cleanup, and it was if we had never been there. Just last spring, Forest Service sites that hadn’t opened yet were littered with trash and human waste.

In recent years, the Department of Game and Fish has made improvements to its campgrounds, including more designated sites, vault toilets, trash bins and fencing to keep vehicles away from the river. The Forest Service has its Respect the Rio program to educate users about the habitat and to restore riparian areas. Private groups have also been at work in the canyon to protect the river.

“We’ve made enormous progress in the last five years,” says Doug Jeffords, president of the Upper Pecos Watershed Association. “This is the most heavily used recreation area that the state of New Mexico has.”

It seems now that at least parts of the Pecos Canyon will get a much-needed rest for a couple or so years.

That time could be used by New Mexicans to reassess the canyon, what it is today, what more we can do in the future to protect it and how we are going to make that happen.

Maybe we’ll decide to move forward on the long-pending plan to create a Pecos Canyon State Park, turning over the Game and Fish Department properties to the State Parks Division, which has far more expertise in managing recreation areas.

Our hearts will break when the rains come to the Pecos Canyon, but out of that disaster will come an opportunity to leave the canyon in better shape for future generations.

UpFront is a daily front-page news and opinion column. Comment directly to Thom Cole at or 505-992-6280 in Santa Fe. Go to to submit a letter to the editor.