Rio Grande River, a BLM plan for the heart of the San Luis Valley ...comments due October 1!

by Jean Smith Chapter Wilderness & Ecosystem Mapping Co-chair

[Editor's Note: You can do something even if you get your Peak & Prairie after the deadline. Even a short, late letter will do some good.]

At dawn the Rio Grande is a sheet of orange light, and Mt. Blanca far to the north is lit with the first rays of the rising sun. The river disappears into the mouth of the gorge, and Ute Peak broods over the land. No one is here now, but a great horned owl lives a mile downstream, the ravens will leave their roost soon and the pronghorn band I saw yesterday is out of sight in one of the many small drainages.

This is the land that the Bureau of Land Management said did not warrant Wilderness designation--not enough solitude or "outstandingly remarkable" qualities! Two years ago the Sierra Club endorsed the Citizens' Management Alternative (CMA) for the Rio Grande corridor submitted to BLM by the Colorado Environmental Coalition and Southern Rockies Ecosystem Project. The CMA proposed a series of core reserves and connecting habitat across the whole landscape, including two Wildernesses, as well as road closures and better protection for riparian areas and other sensitive wildlife habitat. Now BLM has released the draft management plan and environmental impact statement for 90 miles of the Rio Grande corridor from LaSauses, Colorado, to Velarde, New Mexico. About one- third is in Colorado, although the plan is clearly driven by the larger concerns in New Mexico. The comment period ends October 1, but even a late letter will get attention.


The Draft Plan

In addition to 1/4 mile on each side of the river, the study corridor in Colorado has a 6-8 mile band of land to the west, including the three major land forms of Flat Top, Pinon Hills and S. Pinon Hills, altogether about 48,000 acres.

Two of the four alternatives examined in the plan are of interest. The "biodiversity" Alternative B focuses on sustaining or improving biodiversity, healthy ecosystems and natural resources, and the preferred Alternative D is designed to maintain and enhance "ecosystem health while optimizing recreational opportunities and other resource uses." D is a mixed bag, and even B does not incorporate the potential of biologically oriented management. In the Colorado portion of the river corridor, B is primarily a travel and grazing plan, with some attention to riparian areas, wildlife and recreation.


The Wild Landscape

BLM did not review its previous rejection of the proposed Wildernesses--the San Luis Hills Wilderness Study Area, Flat Top and South Pinon Hills--as requested in the CMA. All three areas are recommended for Wilderness designation by 47 conservation organizations, including the Sierra Club. The BLM did incorporate an earlier study that found the 22 miles of the Rio Grande between LaSauses and the state line suitable for Wild and Scenic River designation. The broader landscape questions and wildlife migration corridors were not discussed, although BLM maintains that all the issues in the CMA were addressed.


Roads Closed

Both Alternatives B and D recommend closure of 32 miles of roadways, 35% of the BLM roads in the area. This reduces the density of BLM roads from 1.2 to 0.8 miles per square mile. This is a substantial improvement for the San Luis WSA and Flat Top, as well as the Rio Grande proposed wilderness. These closures would protect some wilderness and Wild and Scenic River values and reduce some impacts on wildlife in general and raptors in particular. With a couple of exceptions, the closures would meet the requests made by conservationists; however, there is still more to be done to reduce total road density, including both state and county roads.


Cows, Water and Willows

Of the 12 grazing allotments on a total of 56,000 acres, the range condition of 49% is unknown, and only 10 % is in either excellent or good condition. Half of the allotments give cattle easy access to the river; and only half, with less than 20% of the acreage, have an "up" or "apparent up" trend. The permittees represent 1% of the employment base in the area.

Alternative B would reduce the current livestock numbers by about 4% and change the time window of grazing to better protect the resource, but Alternative D would continue the current stocking level and make no change in the grazing season. Both alternatives include seeding some of the grazed acreage with native grasses and initiating rest periods in the third or fourth year. Of the expected 5-8% increase in forage, all (B) or more than half (D) would be allotted to wildlife.

Past grazing eliminated willows and cottonwoods and degraded the riparian zones as cattle wandered into and across the river. BLM required permittees to haul water to keep the cows away from the river and built fences with water gaps on the east side of the river. When cattle were excluded from test plots, there was a dramatic increase in willows and cottonwoods.

Under both Alternatives B and D, BLM proposes to bring 98% of the of 127 acres of riparian zone into properly functioning condition in 10 years. In Alternative B there would be additional riparian fencing, and Alternative D would construct five permanent water gaps and develop six wells to water 11 allotments. Grazing would be excluded from riparian zones, and willows and cottonwoods would be planted to speed up the expected regeneration. However, when the riparian areas are properly functioning, they would be opened again to grazing. Balancing all considerations on grazing, Alternative B should be preferred.


Recreation and Wildlife

Recreation includes fishing, hunting, bird watching, hiking on the gorge rim or in the canyon and a short boating season.

For boating, Alternative B and D are similar except for the amount of use. Both call for establishing a recreation site at LaSauses for fishing and flat-water boating, which is appropriate for the area. Other items included in B and D are: -no motorized craft from LaSauses south; -self-registration of both commercial and private parties; -a limit of 15 people per launch; -defined parking areas to control damage in riparian areas at LaSauses and Lobatos Bridge boat launches; -advance reservation system and self-registration at launches; and -acquiring public access at Lobatos Bridge and other areas along the river.

However, the two plans differ in the amount of use allowed. Alternative B would limit private overnight and commercial launches to two each a week, for 60 persons a week. But Alternative D would more than triple the allowed use, with private and commercial launches at one each a day, a maximum of 210 persons a week. This may have little immediate impact, since the hike out of the deep canyon at Lees Ferry or the rapids if one continues discourages casual boaters.

For some time BLM has closed the river below Lobatos Bridge during nesting in April and May. The narrow canyon brings boaters close to nesting waterfowl and raptors, which are very sensitive to disturbance. The Colorado Division of Wildlife recommended that birds be undisturbed until the end of June, which was included in the CMA. This date would eliminate the best boating periods, and so BLM has deferred to recreation values.

As boating pressures expand (2,400 persons a day use the river in New Mexico!), the larger number of boaters allowed in D could have significant impact on wildlife and on the very limited camping sites in the narrow, rocky gorge. There is aesthetic justification for low levels of boating in this area, as well as allowing optimum raptor reproduction. BLM should use Alternative B recommendations and extend the closed season to June 30 in the final plan.


Biological inventories and Monitoring

Much of the data on which this plan is based is inadequate or out-dated. High priorities for complete plant and animal inventories, especially for rare, threatened or endangered species, are San Luis Hills WSA/proposed wilderness, Flat Top Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC)/proposed wilderness, Rio Grande proposed wilderness and the riparian zones of the river, which are also an ACEC. Meaningful decisions are difficult without data.


What You Can Do:

Write Immediately. Even a short letter, even a late letter, will let BLM know that Sierra Club expects sound environmental management of Colorado lands. Address letters to CRMP Team Leader, BLM Taos Resource Area, 226 Cruz Alta Road, Taos NM 87571, fax (505) 758-1620. Copy your comments to Carlos Pinto, Manager, BLM San Luis Resource Area, 1921 State St., Alamosa, CO 81101. He also needs to hear from us!

Suggested Points to Make:
Remind BLM that 47 conservation groups support Wilderness designation for the San Luis Hills WSA, the Flat Top area and the Rio Grande Wilderness (including the river gorge and west into South Pinon Hills).
Express your support for Wild and Scenic designation of the Rio Grande from LaSauses to the state line.
Support BLM's proposed 32 miles of road closures.
Request further protection of San Luis WSA by closing roads to motor vehicles.
Request that Alternative B grazing proposals be adopted as the final plan.
Recommend that BLM complete the fencing on the east side of the river, increase riparian fencing where cattle may have access, eliminate the proposed resumption of grazing in functional riparian areas and move toward improved range conditions through a reduction of AUMs in most allotments, depending on trend and current condition.
Recommend Alternative B items for the final plan for boating and modification of the closed dates for Lobatos Bridge boat launch to April 1 until June 30.
Inventory and monitor 100% of all allotments, as well as all sensitive species on San Luis Hills WSA, Flat Top and the river corridor ACECs, and Rio Grande proposed Wilderness.