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Flood impacts from the Las Conchas and Thompson Ridge fires are likely to pose an ongoing problem in the Valles Caldera National Preserve for many years to come, affecting roadways, the watershed and the historic district. VCNP staff is working to stretch limited resources as far as possible to mitigate the damage.
Erosion will continue to be a major problem in high intensity burn scar areas until vegetation is able to take root.
Most areas affected by the Thompson Ridge fire experienced moderate burns, which actually encourage growth. But high-intensity fires hit areas such as Redondo Peak, as well as the majority of the regions impacted by Las Conchas.
Reseeding those areas is virtually impossible, due to the steepness of the slopes and the hydrophobic — water-resistant — soil high-intensity fires generate. However, efforts are underway to address this.
The Caldera’s Watershed Program Manager Scott Compton outlined some steps the preserve has taken to slow runoff and reintroduce vegetation.
“We did a little reseeding with the barley up there, but we have a couple of issues with that,” Compton said. “We don’t want to incorporate invasive weeds with anything up here. So that kind of halts the use of mulch, and also the use of seed.”
Staff is researching wood shred mulch, which is less likely to introduce invasive species than straw mulch. Mulching presents logistical problems, such as accessing areas in need of it and applying the proper weight.
“It might be a viable thing to help get the vegetation established, especially in the upper La Jara drainages behind the headquarters up there,” Compton said. “It’s a really hard hit area up there, and there are a lot of roads. They’re not in use right now, but we could open them up really quick just for something like that.”
The preserve also invested in a motorized seed collector that can be pulled behind an ATV. Staff planned on collecting seed this fall, the season when most seed is viable, but that project was short-circuited by the government shutdown. Some grasses can be collected in the spring, but ground moisture makes access more difficult that time of year.
“If we could collect seed right from the area that’s burned nearby and use it directly right there, then we know we’re not bringing any invasives in, and we can get that going,” Compton said.
Once the seed is collected, staff will have to enlist volunteer help for the labor-intensive reseeding process.
Compton hoped the Youth Conservation Corps might take that on as a project.
Flooding also threatens long-standing conservation projects, such as efforts to reduce the Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDLs) in Jaramillo Creek, which feeds the headwaters of the East Fork of the Jemez River.
TMDL is a measure of turbidity in the water. Excessive turbidity impairs the normal growth, function or reproduction of aquatic life.
TDMLs within the Valles often exceed New Mexico water quality standards, due to residual impacts from logging, grazing and road construction prior to its designation as a national preserve.
Groups such as Los Amigos de Valles Caldera and Wild Earth Guardians have invested hundreds of thousands in grant money and numerous volunteer hours in riparian restoration. Those efforts are threatened in the aftermath of the fires.
After Las Conchas, Los Amigos diverted grant money from other projects slated for the Jaramillo Creek drainage to address a new erosion gully emptying into it. The group brought in a contractor to oversee the project and placed “log mattresses” in the channel to trap soil and debris and slow erosion.
“It wasn’t but several weeks after they finished we had a gullywasher come down, and it just undid everything that we did. And this is two years after the fire,” Compton said.
Monitoring devices that help staff track water quality are also impacted, as they are washed away or buried by floodwaters and debris flows.
Staff is working on a cooperative agreement with Los Amigos to continue work on the gully this year. Remaining grant funds are insufficient to meet the need, but Compton is hopeful the Valles Caldera Trust can find a way to match those funds in order to complete the project.
Staff is monitoring other potential problem areas, especially the Santa Rosa drainage, which could potentially be affected by both the Las Conchas and Thompson Ridge fires.
“It’s a drainage that Los Amigos have done some work on in the years before, putting structures along here to stop sediment and start building it up again in here. And these projects, they worked great,” Compton said. “Unfortunately, one season and a lot of them are full, because so much sediment came down. You would expect it to take years for these things to fill up with sediment, and they’re already done. So they did their job, just a lot faster than we thought it would.”
Staff is also keeping an eye on another imminent threat: hazard trees. High intensity burns have left thousands of dead trees standing, many of them along roads and trails frequented by visitors. Over the years those trees will begin toppling due to erosion or high winds, creating a safety hazard.
“The BAER team did identify some stretches, and there was some thinning done by the forest service crews before they left the fire, but there are a lot of trees that are going to fall down,” Compton said.
VCNP staff continues to reassess the long-term impacts of the fires and what steps they can take to keep roads open, watersheds healthy and visitors safe.
“I think a lot of our philosophy up here has been, if it’s out of the way, somewhere, we’re just going to let nature heal itself again. We’re not going to go in and do anything to it. And that was definitely true after Las Conchas, but maybe we hadn’t seen as many effects onto the roads that are being used,” Compton said. “So we need to look more at some of the prescription stuff to try to resolve some of the issues.”