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After the fires - ‘It could have been a lot worse’

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By Karl Moffatt
For the Optic

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Anglers returning to the recently reopened Pecos River will find far fewer places to camp and fish as well as fewer trout to catch in the wake of two devastating forest fires earlier this summer.

“But it could have been a whole lot worse,” said Richard Hansen, Cold Water Fisheries biologist for the state Department of Game and Fish while inspecting the river at the department’s Mora recreation area recently. “The upper canyon is in pretty good shape so we’re stocking here again.”

The Tres Lagunas Fire erupted in late May from a downed power line in the canyon through which the Pecos River runs and scorched thousands of acres before it could be extinguished many weeks later.

The Jarosa Fire deep within the Pecos Wilderness also burned for weeks in the upper Pecos River watershed before it too could be brought to bear.

Then heavy summer rains brought on the floods, sending torrents of unchecked water pushing rocks and burned timber down scorched hillsides and into the river on the canyon floor.

Because of the fire and then the floods, authorities had kept the only road leading into the canyon closed along with the camping and fishing areas until just recently reopening some of them.

But even now a good portion of the lower rivers remain  off limits until the threat of monsoon-related flooding subsides.

“It’s just too dangerous,” said Steve Romero, Pecos and  Las Vegas District ranger for the Santa Fe National Forest. “We’ll be patrolling these areas and issuing citations if necessary.”

Visitors to the canyon north of the village of Pecos will find U.S. Forest Service campgrounds and day-use areas closed along an estimated 13-mile stretch of river between the town of Pecos and the village of Tererro.

Holy Ghost Canyon will remain closed also.

These areas are scheduled to remain closed until Sept. 30 but could reopen sooner if conditions warrant, Romero said.

The state Game and Fish Department’s two camping and fishing areas in the burn area, Bert Clancy and  Tererro, will remain closed also.

But the upper stretch of the Pecos River above  Tererro is back open along with about six miles of river.

The Game and Fish Mora and Jamie Koch camping and fishing areas along the river are open for use, and stocking is taking place.

And in the surrounding national forest, visitors will still find Forest Road 305 and the Panchuela Campground closed, but Cowles, Jack’s Creek and Iron Gate campgrounds are open, along with dispersed camping in the Davis Willow area.  

For more details, consult the Santa Fe National Forest website at www.fs.usda.gov.

Anglers heading up to the Pecos will find the forest green and inviting until they come across the burn scar and flood damage easily seen at Brush Ranch.

“We were the bull’s eye,” said Bob Ingersol of the post- fire mud slides that racked the resort, destroyed its fishing pond, buried habitat improvements in the river and killed many of their stocked trout. “Seeing all those beautiful fish suffocate and die just killed me.”

Brush Ranch is a former summer camp converted to a fishing resort by the Lujan family of Albuquerque and will remain closed for the rest of the season while repairs are under way.

Check out the resort’s website at ww.brushranchnm.com/ to see remarkable photos of the flood damage.

The same floods resembling chocolate syrup and bearing boulders and charred trees didn’t do the rest of the river downstream any good either, but Hansen, the Game and Fish fisheries biologist, remained optimistic.

“The Jemez looked about 1,000 times worse after the Las Conchas Fire but somehow fish survived there,” he said.
The Las Conchas Fire of June 2011, also started by a downed power line, burned more than  150,000 acres in and around the Jemez Mountains before it could be snuffed out about a month later.

Hansen said he found insect life still present in the riverbed below Brush Ranch and even saw a couple of rising fish still in the water.

“In general it looks much better than I had been expecting to find,” he noted.

Hansen said he expects to be back on the river in the fall for a much more in-depth assessment, only farther downstream at the Pecos National Historic Park, where much of the silt and debris from the floods is thought to have ended up.

The national park’s highly popular fly-fishing program on the Pecos River flowing through its borders has since been suspended for the rest of the summer and the fall season too, says Superintendent Dennis Carruth.

“We just can’t chance having people down on the river in the event of a flash flood,” he said.

The fires, floods and closures have reduced what was once a highly popular fishing area to a shell of its former self and has really bit into one local fly shop’s business.

“We lost a lot of the tourist trade because of that closure,” said Ivan Valdez, lead guide and assistant manager at the Reel Life Fly Shop in Santa Fe. “And it’s been for months now and the season is winding down.”

Valdez said fishing in the upper canyon above  Tererro is still “pretty sweet,” but he expects that competition between guides and their clients and the rest of the fishing public will only get worse.

“It’s going to get real crowded up in there,” he said.

But amid all the damage some good may come of it, some anglers say, as one of the state’s most heavily used and abused rivers may see less people and can rest and recover because of it.

Editor’s note: Karl F. Moffatt is a longtime New Mexico journalist and avid outdoorsman who can be contacted through his blog at www.outdoorsnewmexico.com

IF YOU GO

From Las Vegas take I-25 toward Santa Fe and take the Pecos exit into town. Head north on State Road 63 for about 13 miles to Tererro and then continue into the open areas.