The Sandoval Signpost

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Mountain wildflowers of the Southern Rockies and Central NM

Yarrow—Achillea millefolium L.


Aster Family—Asteraceae

Flat-topped clusters of white flowers sit on upright, two-foot-tall stems. Each bundle is composed of numerous tiny flower heads that have three to six broad rays surrounding a dozen rays that are usually white but may be pink at higher elevations. Dense, silky hairs covering the stems and finely divided leaves cast a gray tone on the plant. The entire plant exudes a pungent odor. Blooming all season long, colonies of yarrow are found at every elevation in the Southern Rockies, except on the highest summits.

Because of its clusters of small flower heads and dissected leaves, yarrow is often confused with carrot family plants. But close observation reveals that yarrow flowers are arranged in composite heads with disk and ray flowers characteristic of the aster family. Furthermore, yarrow leaves are not stem claspers like those of members of the carrot family. When out of bloom, yarrow, with its dissected leaves, could be mistaken for a fern were it not for the strong aroma imparted by volatile foliage oils.

According to tradition, this plant takes its name from Achilles, who used the plant to staunch the flow of blood from his wounded soldiers during the Trojan War. Yarrow sap, with its high tannin content, has been used by armies in such a way since antiquity, gaining it the name herbal militaris. Millefolium means “thousand leaves,” referring to the many lobes on each leaf. The local Spanish name, plumajillo, or little feather, also relates to these leaves.

Native Americans and early settlers used yarrow for its astringent qualities—those that made it effective for Achilles’ men. When England experienced a pharmaceutical drug shortage during World War II, the Ministry of Health recruited Boy Scouts, Girl Guides, and schoolchildren to scour the countryside for yarrow to augment supplies. Because of its healing qualities, herbal teas made from yarrow are available in health food stores throughout the United States and Europe.

Even today, yarrow is yielding new medicinal rewards. Swedish scientists have found that yarrow tissues contain mosquito-repellent compounds. When volunteers placed their hands into cages containing Aedes egyptii mosquitoes, which are transmitters of yellow fever and other tropical diseases, the mosquitoes avoided hands treated with Achillea extract. Separating and identifying the repellent compounds may lead to an important tool in controlling mosquito-borne diseases.


Seeing the forest through the trees

Turning bushes into trees

What is this bizarre affectation that Placitans have taken on by trimming their juniper bushes? When I first moved here nearly twenty years ago, juniper bushes were, well, bushy. About ten years ago, I first came across what was then a curiosity. Someone had pruned all the junipers on his property. I promptly dismissed it as the work of a Texan immigrant in the possession of a chainsaw. A few years later, I noticed that another family, this time in our very own subdivision, had also trimmed its junipers to make them look like trees. But they are Texans too, so I shrugged my shoulders and drove on by. Then suddenly, it was as if an epidemic had hit. Everyone in Placitas was out with knife and blade, hacking away at the junipers.

In the past, if you were particularly fond of a juniper, the most action you would take was to yank off a piece of mistletoe to prevent its early demise. But now, on any given day, you will see the neighbors in my ‘hood giving the junipers what one female neighbor calls “a bikini wax.” They all rave about the magnificent views that have opened up and how it improves the “curbside appeal.” In fact, they’ve even started dropping hints, quite broad ones, to the effect that my junipers would benefit from a little chainsaw magic. I was sitting playing Scrabble with my up-the-street neighbor Rocky the other weekend when he mentioned how attractive our other neighbor-up-the-street’s trees looked.

“You know,” he told me, “if you just lopped off a couple of branches over there, your view would open up tremendously.”

So this week I went out and lopped off a few branches, and you know what? They look great! And now I’ve got the bug. I’m turning all my juniper bushes into trees.

Cochiti and Army Corps sign cooperative agreement

Cochiti Pueblo and the Army Corps of Engineers signed a cooperative agreement related to conducting a baseline study at Cochiti reservoir in anticipation of potentially changing storage options.

The agreement, signed at a ceremony at the Cochiti Pueblo in June, is related to a federal provision in the Water Resources Development Act (WRDA) authored by Senator Pete Domenici and Senator Jeff Bingaman that directs the Army Corps to engage pueblos in the operation and maintenance of flood control projects in the middle Rio Grande region.

Congress late last year overrode a presidential veto to reauthorize a new WRDA law. Within this new law, Domenici and Bingaman included a provision to allow the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to enter into cooperative agreements with New Mexico pueblos and give them greater opportunities to assist the Corps with operation and maintenance activities on flood control projects.

The new WRDA law also reauthorized the Corps’ Tribal Partnership program, which expired in 2006. The Tribal Partnership program allows the Corps to perform watershed assessments and study flood damage reduction and environmental restoration projects on tribal lands that will substantially benefit New Mexico’s tribes and pueblos.

BLM initiates environmental analysis of solar energy development

As part of its ongoing efforts to increase domestic energy production and ensure greater energy security, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has initiated a joint programmatic Environmental Impact Statement (PEIS) with the Department of Energy (DOE) to assess the environmental, social, and economic impacts associated with solar energy development on BLM-managed public land in six western states: Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Utah.

“Renewable energy resources, such as solar, wind, hydroelectric, and geothermal, will continue to play a larger role in meeting the nation’s future energy needs,” said Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne. “We must use our own domestic energy resources as part of a balanced, rational, and realistic national policy to secure a reliable supply of affordable energy for America’s families and businesses. Expanded solar energy development is part of the solution, placing more control over energy supply in the hands of America.”

The joint PEIS will also evaluate a number of alternative management strategies to determine which presents the best management approach for the agencies to adopt in terms of mitigating potential impacts and facilitating solar energy development while carrying out their respective missions. The measures adopted as a result of this PEIS will provide consistency and certainty for solar energy development and will help expedite environmental analysis for site-specific projects in the future.

During work on the PEIS, the BLM will focus attention on the 125 applications already received for rights-of-way for solar energy development, while deferring new applications until after completion of the PEIS. The 125 existing applications are for land covering almost one million acres and with the potential to generate seventy billion watts of electricity, or enough to power twenty million average American homes. The PEIS will establish a process for accepting future applications, possibly through a competitive process, which is likely to attract companies with the experience and resources necessary to quickly deploy solar energy projects.

A Notice of Intent published in today’s Federal Register opened a public comment period on the scope of the PEIS. The BLM will accept written comments related to scoping that are postmarked or delivered by July 7, 2008, and electronic comments that are received by the same date. A public scoping meeting to obtain comments was held in Albuquerque on Thursday, June 26 at 6:00 p.m.

For further information, visit:

Las Huertas Creek Restoration Field Day slated for July 12

Las Placitas Association and the Earth Care Fellowship of Las Placitas Presbyterian Church are organizing a Restoration Field Day on Saturday, July 12 from 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. at the site of the quarter-million-dollar river restoration project along Las Huertas Creek (formerly a river feeding into the Rio Grande). All Placitans and others interested in the project are invited to participate.

The morning begins with a tour of the main site at the creek, with brief presentations by local experts on the long and colorful history of the area, its ecology, and the specifics of the extensive planting and restoration activities to date. So far, a thousand beneficial trees and shrubs have been planted, trails and holding pond dams constructed, and other structures set up to induce meandering of the creek (reducing erosion and promoting plant growth).

The project has been funded by the New Mexico environmental agency and the Federal Environmental Protection Agency. Las Placitas Association administers the grant. The goal is to decrease the major erosion into the creek and thus the silting of the Rio Grande during big rains. Other major benefits include restoring traditional flora and encouraging the abundant wildlife habitat of former times.

The site is near the location of the historic Las Placitas Indian Pueblo, as well as the San Jose de Las Huertas Land Grant Village, the largest unexcavated Spanish colonial town in the American Southwest, now owned by the Archaeological Conservancy.

After the tour, participants will break up into small work groups for an hour-plus of hands-on experience of the restoration: watering the planted areas; weeding out the exotic, non-native Siberian Elms and Salt Cedar, both of which are detrimental to the river ecology; making erosion gully brush and stone silt dams, as well as Zuni Stone Bowl mini-water catchments; and river trail making.

Then all will meet back for refreshments and lunch and wrap up presentations on the project. Lunch is potluck, with dishes and beverages to share.

Presenters for the day include Reid Bandeen, a hydrology expert, president of Las Placitas Association, and author of the publication, “Best Management Practices for Erosion Control” and other works on local water harvesting. Other speakers will address the history and ecology of the Placitas area.

Participants should bring the requisite New Mexico outdoor kit: hats, sunscreen, water, and work gloves. Participants can meet at the Las Placitas Presbyterian Church at 8:30 a.m. to carpool to the site a few minutes away. Detailed directions will also be posted at the church. For more information, please contact John Green at or (505) 867-0240.

The mysticism of mud

Mud season just ended on the sage-covered mesa north of Taos that I call home. During the last few months, you could tell who lives on dirt roads by the perpetual stripe of mud on their lower pant legs. That's normal. But I have never seen as much mud as I saw this spring. On the two-mile drive from the pavement to my house, the mud built up in the wheel wells and froze, leaving maybe a millimeter of coarse clearance to abuse my already-worn tires. Slipping and sliding through the foot-deep quagmire, the car sucked goop into every nook and cranny of the undercarriage.

Out here on the high and dry mesa we had so much runoff from snowmelt that homes flooded. People were stranded for days at a time. A babbling brook flowed across our normally parched property for weeks, creating a sizeable pond behind a simple check dam across a gully. Last November, we braced ourselves for the predicted La Niv±a drought. Now, neighbors who have lived out here longer than we have say they haven't seen this much water in over 20 years. The Natural Resources Conservation Service says that the Sangre de Cristo Mountains just east of us have the greatest snowpack with the highest water content in decades. Taos Ski Valley says this was the best year ever. Local rafting outfitters are beginning what's sure to be a wet and wild summer. New Mexico will meet all its water delivery obligations to Texas. The gentry will water their Kentucky bluegrass sod to their hearts' content. And everyone will forget for one more year that we live in a dry region and that we need to be frugal with our water.

Next year, when we're back to our normal dryness, people will complain about the "drought" as if it's just a passing blip, and we will continue watering golf courses and suburbs and using high-flow plumbing fixtures, waiting for the rains to return.

Maybe we all have a case of eternal optimism. Despite years of drought—despite all the evidence that the West was always a hot and dry place that is steadily becoming more so—one snowy winter erases all memory. I have a friend who comes from a much wetter region and fervently believes that the rain and snow will come, even when it's dry as a bone. Two years ago, when we were suffering the worst winter drought on record, he consulted a psychic who convinced him that it would start snowing in January. When January came and went without snow, he revised it to heavy snows in February. Then, March was going to be a record-breaker. I think that psychic left town soon after.

It's a matter of faith akin to the "rain follows the plow" mysticism that brought settlers to the Great Plains in the late 1800s. For decades, pioneers just passed through the "Great American Desert" on their way to greener pastures, but the 1870s and early 1880s saw some of the heaviest sustained rainfall in centuries. The newcomers believed they had brought the weather.

A 19th century amateur scientist and bombastic marketeer of the West named Charles Dana Wilber promoted the theory, saying, "God speed the plow. ... By this wonderful provision, which is only man's mastery over nature, the clouds are dispensing copious rains ... (the plow) is the instrument which separates civilization from savagery; and converts desert into a farm or garden. ... To be more concise, rain follows the plow."

This was more fuel for Manifest Destiny, the idea that the United States was meant to expand westward and that God was on its side. People wanted to believe it, so they did. In about 10 years, nearly 2 million people put down roots and industriously farmed the plains. Until the rains ended, and things dried out again.

You would think we know better these days, but I'm not convinced that we do. Some of the old acequia farmers still talk about the terrible drought of the 1950s. The acequia tradition—brought from the other side of the planet by early Indo-Hispano settlers—has been around long enough to see big fluctuations in the weather, and the farmers have learned to live with it. But that 1950s drought was severe enough to stick in the memory of anyone trying to make a living from the land: It was the longest and driest spell in over a century. Yet tree rings tell us that the '50s, tough as they were, were nothing compared to much drier spells throughout the last 2,000 years. The 30-year rolling average we use to figure "normal" weather skews our perspective into something close to what those High Plains settlers once believed. But enlarge your perspective to the last two millennia, and it's a very dry picture indeed.

Add global warming, and you can see that we're heading for some huge changes. Hotter and Drier is the ominous title of a recent report by the Rocky Mountain Climate Organization and the Natural Resources Defense Council. It says that the American West is heating and drying up faster than the rest of the planet. According to University of New Mexico climatologist David Gutzler, there will be zero snowpack in the northern New Mexico Rockies by the end of the century, if not sooner. Imagine what skiing and runoff will be like in the meantime. Before too long, I won't have a reason to complain about springtime mud.

But for the moment, getting down the driveway is a mucky chore, and we have more water than we know what to do with. It would be nice to believe that maybe all those scientists are wrong, and that we really are the chosen ones. Maybe the rain will continue to mystically follow us across the West. But maybe not. Anyway, we'll worry about that next year.

Ernest Atencio is a writer and anthropologist who spends most of his time working on land conservation. He finally got all the mud off his car. This article first appeared on May 12, 2008, in High Country News (, which covers the West's communities and natural-resource issues.

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