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If visitors encounter an ugly spot north of Frijoles Canyon at Bandelier National Monument, rest assured, it’s for the best.
Spots on the northern part of the canyon with branches downed and trees and other vegetation slashed are part of the Pinon-Juniper Restoration Project at Bandelier.
The restoration project, the initial portions of which date back to the early 1990s, is now going in earnest. Its aim is to reduce soil erosion in the area.
The big problem, Bandelier archeologist Rory Gauthier said, is that about half of Bandelier’s 3,000 archeological sites are located in the Pinon-Juniper area. With a high rate of soil erosion occurring in that area, the sties’ stability could be threatened.
“We’re supposed to preserve and protect these sites for future generations,” Gauthier said. “The simplest way we can do this is to control of the number of trees in the area.”
The overgrowth of the forest in the area is a primary factor in the rate of soil erosion.
In the 1880s, Bandelier’s lands were used for cattle grazing. The cattle fed on the natural grasses in the area which were vital to the area’s overall health.
The grazing, combined with federal policies of fire suppression starting around the turn of the 20th century, combined to allow the overgrowth of trees.
With the restoration project, the overgrowth is being cut down and chipped into mulch, which is then spread around the area.
Gauthier said in studies conducted by monument botanist Brian Jacobs and geologist Craig Allen, that the results so far have been fairly dramatic.
Using a sediment catchment dam – basically a tarp put over a runoff area – there has been a 10-fold decrease in soil erosion in the areas where the restoration project is taking place.
Gauthier said the wildlife seems to be flourishing in the restored areas with larger populations of birds, deer and even butterflies observed.
Grasses that promote healthy forest growth have also returned to the area, increasing by about 300 percent.
The project is scheduled to continue for five or six more years. About 4,000 of Bandelier’s 33,000 acres will be affected by the Pinon-Juniper project.
The big downside of the project, Gauthier said, is the natural beauty of the area. Instead of thick forest, visitors can expect downed trees and limbs.
However, Gauthier said it’s a small and short-term price to pay for keeping the forest healthy and the archeological sites as safe as possible.
“It’s a good project,” he said. “When you do go out to the areas that have already been treated, you can see the issues with have with erosion.”
In the fall, work will move south of Frijoles Canyon.
None of the work is expected to impact visitors or restrict access to any areas of the monument.
“They’ll have to watch their feet, but no areas will be closed,” Gauthier said.