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The Crest of Montezuma—backdrop to Placitas

Heinrich, Lujan Grisham introduce bill to improve recreational access to the Crest of Montezuma

—Ty Belknap

On December 13, U.S. Senator Martin Heinrich (D-N.M.) and U.S. Representative Michelle Lujan Grisham (N.M.-1) introduced legislation in the Senate and the House to add the Crest of Montezuma to the north end of the Cibola National Forest and shift its management from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) to the U.S. Forest Service. The companion bills would improve recreational access for local residents, while ensuring that the land, located just east of the village of Placitas, is not subject to future mining and development.

“The Crest of Montezuma is the backdrop to the historic Placitas village. But many local residents have shared their concerns with me about the future of this land. Most concerning to them are the ways in which access could be restricted for recreational uses and that a critical corridor for wildlife would be endangered,” said Sen. Heinrich, a member of the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. “By shifting the management of the Crest of Montezuma to the Forest Service, New Mexicans can be sure that the land is not sold to private interests or developed for mineral resources. I look forward to working with Representative Lujan Grisham to improve recreational access to this spectacular area.”

The legislation would also simplify management of the area by unifying federal land management under the Forest Service. This proposal has strong support from the local community, including Las Placitas Association (LPA), Pathways, and the New Mexico Wildlife Federation—citizen groups that represent residents near the Crest of Montezuma.

The process of preserving this land for open space began in 2003. While BLM was interested, the agency did not have the funds to purchase the property within a time frame the landowners could accept. Some quick negotiating by the Trust for Public Land allowed Santo Domingo Pueblo to acquire 1,077 acres of the Crest property in November 2003.

In 2007, the BLM, the New Mexico State Land Office, and Santo Domingo Pueblo negotiated a land exchange. It allowed the BLM to meet legislative mandates and consolidate public lands at the Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, the Ball Ranch Area of Critical Concern, and the Crest of Montezuma.

The Crest borders the national forest and is archeologically significant. According to legend, it contains the lost Montezuma Mine.

BLM said that they planned to work with area residents to develop a resource-management plan that would protect wildlife habitat and allow for low-impact recreational use. During the time it took to iron out the details of the exchange, the BLM formed a loose partnership with Sandoval County to manage the open space. The county acquired private land adjacent to the Crest that provides access to the property. A trailhead with an informational kiosk and restrooms is proposed, as well as a new trail to existing trails on the first bench of the Crest.

In 2008, BLM field manager Tom Gow announced that official recreational open space designation would have to wait until the Rio Puerco Resource Management Plan revision is completed in 2012. As of December 2013, the plan has yet to be released. Open space advocates were dismayed to find that the Crest would join the other two BLM parcels near Placitas in the grab bag that would be sorted out by the RMP revision. It could be mined, drilled, driven, or developed. Las Placitas Association and Pathways determined that transferring the crest to the adjacent national forest would provide better protection for the land.  As a member of the House of Representatives, then-Rep. Heinrich introduced a bill creating the transfer that passed the House by a unanimous vote in 2012. This is the first time the legislation has been introduced in the U.S. Senate.

Meanwhile, the Crest of Montezuma is accessible for recreational use. LPA conducts annual tours of the area. Access the north side of Crest by taking Camino de Tecolote to Diamond Tail Road, turning immediately onto the rough gravel road to the right or parking near the pipeline property. There are no established trails, but hikers can bushwhack the rugged terrain, probably in solitude, whenever they please.


Land exchange media event

—Karin Stangl

New Mexico State Land Commissioner Ray Powell participated in a signing ceremony to exchange State Trust Land in Sandoval County for land with high commercial development potential at Mesa del Sol in Albuquerque. The media event took place on December 9 at Mesa del Sol. Sandoval County plans to use the former state trust land property for a landfill site. The County purchased the Mesa del Sol property for the exchange. The State Land Office will acquire commercial property at Innovation Park at Mesa del Sol, near the Fidelity Investments Business Center.


Trail project stalls

—Ty Belknap

In February of 2012, District Ranger Sid Morgan of the National Forest Sandia Ranger District posted a notice at the trailhead announcing plans to evaluate recreational trails in the Bernalillo Watershed Research Natural Area and surrounding United States Forest Service administered lands. The popular trails system in this area is commonly known as the Loop (defined by the forest road) and is located just below the S-curves south of SR 165.

The notice stated that twenty-five miles of user-created trails range in condition from little impact to extreme loss of vegetation and soil erosion. Furthermore, it stated, “While many trails developed as a result of cattle trails, old roads, and frequent travel, signs of [prohibited] current development and construction are evident. Many trails enter the Sandia Mountain Wilderness, which are being utilized by mountain bicyclists, which is also prohibited.”

Last year, Trails and Wilderness Program Manager Kerry Wood said that the area has been “basically unmanaged forever,” and that as it becomes more popular, steps need to be taken to provide an official trail system that protects the watershed and its grasslands and archeological sites. “We need to provide a presence and enforcement of regulations,” he said. “Our goal is to help provide a culture among users to recreate responsibly.”

“I mapped over forty miles of trails with a GPS while riding my bike.” Wood said. “Some trails run straight downhill with no undulation, and as they erode, users just keeping moving them over a bit. Others have too steep a grade. We want to reroute some trails—make them longer or less steep. Some trails will be closed and reseeded. Some trails will be rerouted out of the wilderness area.”

A public meeting and comment period has since been completed, and Woods estimated that an Environment Assessment would be completed last winter. Then the project was postponed by other priorities, including a busy fire season. Then the government shut down. The watershed was severely eroded by record rainfall, but it is still a great place to hike, bike, and ride a horse.

Woods said that the Placitas Area Trail Association has been allowed to do some minor measures to fix and/or limit the erosion until the EA is completed, and that the project is still high on his priority list. He is hoping to get some movement soon, and still welcomes public comment. Woods can be reached at 281-3304 x.107 or kwood@fs.fed.us.

The Forest Service is shifting from a post-decisional appeal process to a pre-decisional objection process for projects. Rather than being able to seek higher-level review of unresolved concerns after a project decision has been made, those who are eligible will be able to seek that review before the project decision has been signed.

Preliminary environmental assessments (EA) for the Placitas Area Trail Project will eventually be available on-line at: www.fs.fed.us/nepa/project_list.php?forest=110303. There will then be a thirty-day comment period, as well as a 45-day objection period to review the preliminary EA, prior to making a decision. If you provide input during the thirty-day comment period, your comments will be considered, and you will also be eligible to file an objection before a decision is made. Questions about this new pre-decisional objection process can be addressed to Cheryl Prewitt at 346-3820.


Don’t decorate trees in the forest

—Ruth Sutton

Sandia Ranger District staff on the Cibola National Forest and National Grasslands are finding trees in the Sandia Mountain Wilderness, and in the general forest, that have been decorated with ornaments, strings of cranberries, popcorn, and apples. In addition, birdseed has been spread around the area. “Although this seems like a nice gesture, we’re asking the public not to place these items in the forest,” said Sandia District Ranger Cid Morgan.

Morgan said that leaving these items in the forest is considered littering, and it violates the forest’s food storage order. But of greater concern is the impact to the animals and environment. For example, if animals ingest a plastic-wrapped candy cane, the plastic can get caught in their intestines and kill them. Or the winds may knock down the ornaments and scatter them throughout the forest. Another concern is scattering bird seed could introduce non-native plants to the forest, which could cause a serious problem to the environment.

Morgan suggests the best way for people to feed the birds during the winter is to set up feeding stations at their homes.

 
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