Mary Stuever, at home in the forest
While wandering in the tall cottonwood-dominated bosque along the
middle Rio Grande, I came across an open area that had recently
burned. Young trees, all about six feet tall with a plastic band
wrapped around the base, dominated the setting. As I walked into
an opening by the river, I found an array of bright orange wire
flags. Next to each marker was a mound of sand surrounding a deep,
circular hole four inches in diameter. As odd as this situation
sounds, I knew exactly what was going on. I had stumbled onto an
area where cottonwood trees would soon be growing as a result of
much human intervention and effort.
The cottonwood tree is a central feature of these woodlands that
grow besides rivers of the American Southwest. The tree is remarkably
beautiful—large, spreading branches, rich green leaves that
turn to golden yellow in the fall, and deeply furrowed gray bark
that wraps around what can, with time, become humongous trunks.
Fossil evidence of cottonwoods dates back over a million years,
and the story of cottonwoods along rivers is a beautiful tale of
interaction with the elements. For hundreds of thousands of years,
cottonwoods have grown along rivers without any human help. To understand
why augers are needed today to grow cottonwoods, it helps to understand
the natural rhythms that have been disrupted.
Start in March, with cottonwood catkins. While many species of
trees produce both male and female flowers, cottonwood trees are
dioecious, meaning that individuals are either male or female. The
bright red pollen-producing flowers on the male trees are arranged
on a string or catkin. The female flowers also grow in catkins,
but are less conspicuous in early spring. By May, these female flowers
have transformed into strings of marble-sized fruits, or tetones.
In late May or early June, timed to coincide with flood waters
from snowmelt in the mountains, these tetones burst forth with millions
of “cotton” seed. The filaments surrounding the seed
allow for wind dispersion. Some communities have passed ordinances
requiring planting of “cottonless” cottonwood only.
Essentially, these regulations promote the increased establishment
of “male” cottonwoods, leading to the proliferation
of allergy-producing pollen. Ask any allergy sufferers and they
would likely rather have cotton in their yards any day!
The distribution of cottonwood seed is not what is broken in the
system, however. Cottonwood trees are still in sync with melting
snow. What breaks down in the establishment of new cottonwood trees
today are the next steps. In order to grow, a seed must land on
bare, wet soil exposed to direct sunlight. In upper watersheds of
unregulated rivers such as the Jemez River in Jemez Canyon, these
ideal cottonwood nursery sites develop during spring run-off. As
a result, multiple age classes of trees can be found along unregulated
rivers. However, with dams, levees, and the impoundment of spring
run-off for agriculture and flood control, bare, wet soil in the
open is hard to find in today’s regulated floodplains. These
micro-sites are usually limited to frequently-flooded low sandbars
within the river channel.
The next challenge for the small cottonwood seedling is to “keep
its feet in the water.” The cottonwood is a water-loving,
water-thriving tree. To stay alive, it must have roots in the water
table. Since the water table drops through the summer, the seedling
must grow roots at a rate that keeps up with the declining level.
Again, the hydrology in the “regulated river” is often
disconnected from natural cycles, and cottonwood seedlings die out
when water levels drop faster than roots can grow.
Once rooted in the water table, the final step in cottonwood survival
is avoiding floods that sweep the young seedlings away. In an unregulated
river system, cottonwood trees survive in places where the river
channel shifts away from the newly established stands.
As a result of human alterations to the river, natural cottonwood
recruitment has severely declined in the last half century. The
last major recruitment of cottonwood seedlings along the Rio Grande
below Cochiti dam was just before the dam was completed in the early
Most young cottonwoods found in the bosque now are “pole
plantings.” Plantation-grown cottonwood poles are about three
inches in diameter and fourteen to twenty feet tall. A hole is dug
to the level where the water table is known to exist year-round,
and the pole is planted in the existing water table. Cottonwood
poles will grow roots in this environment and establish as a tree,
provided that some other agent (such as a beaver) does not remove
or kill the tree.
Walking through this piece of Albuquerque bosque, it is easy to
“read the landscape” and recognize the work involved
to reestablish cottonwood trees in a recent burn. The young trees
with the plastic bands are poles planted in previous years. The
plastic wrap provides protection from nibbling rabbits and beavers.
The recently dug holes will soon be populated with new poles. The
wire flags make it easy to find where the auger dug the holes. With
a bit of imagination, it is easy to envision the future forest of
large, spreading limbs, and trees with trunks that will take two
or three people linking arms to encircle each one.
The Forester’s Log is a monthly column written by forester
Mary Stuever. Mary can be contacted at email@example.com.
A cautionary tale about pipeline safety
A major interstate pipeline corridor containing five large hazardous
liquid pipelines traverses Placitas. The safe operation of these
pipelines is important to us all because leaks on liquid pipelines
can contaminate ground water and these pipelines traverse Las Huertas
Creek, a major recharge area for our aquifer. Unfortunately, the
US Office of Pipeline Safety (OPS) has a poor enforcement record.
Some may remember a tragic pipeline accident in Carlsbad in August
2000. A fifty-year-old corroded pipeline that had never been inspected
exploded near two families who were fishing in the Pecos River.
All twelve men, women, and children died. OPS investigated and concluded
that the operator, El Paso Energy, violated five pipeline safety
regulations. In 2001, OPS proposed to fine El Paso $2.5 million
Today, more than six years after the accident, OPS has never collected
that fine. In July 2006, I decided to find out why not, by using
the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA).
FOIA controls how federal agencies respond to requests for information.
Under FOIA, the general rule is that information is public, unless
it fits into one of nine exemptions or three exclusions.
In October, OPS responded by sending me a bill for $129 for three
hours of search time and a denial of all documents because OPS allegedly
had a policy to withhold all information related to an “open”
enforcement proceeding. OPS offered to waive the $129 charge only
if I would withdraw my request. OPS provided no explanation why
an enforcement proceeding would still be “open” more
than six years after the accident and past the time when statutes
of limitation would preclude any court action to collect the fine.
I appealed the OPS denial of fee waiver and the denial of documents.
In December, I received a phone call from a lawyer at OPS characterizing
their initial denials as “ill-advised.” In January,
I received a six-inch-thick stack of documents, including the OPS
evaluation of why its staff believed El Paso committed five violations
and El Paso’s response explaining why it believed it hadn’t
violated any laws. I also received a copy of a letter in which OPS
referred the enforcement case to the Department of Justice (DOJ).
Based on my preliminary evaluation, this is a classic demonstration
of the benefits of FOIA. El Paso offered several arguments in which
pipeline safety advocates will be keenly interested, including detailed
critiques of OPS regulations and what requirements they do and do
In a nutshell, El Paso alleged that OPS regulations were so poorly
written that they virtually impose no enforceable standards. El
Paso also alleged that OPS had violated the law in issuing its enforcement
regulations, thus precluding any administrative enforcement. If
these allegations were true, it could explain why the fine was never
collected. I have now submitted a new FOIA case to DOJ to find out
if that is why DOJ never pursued the case.
This is a cautionary tale for those of us who live near pipelines.
Although pipelines can be safe methods of transporting fuel, they
must be carefully operated and diligently maintained. Unfortunately,
the regulator who is supposed to impose standards and requirements
on pipeline companies seems to have an enforcement scheme unequal
to the task. It is tragic that twelve people died so horribly. But
it is inexcusable that OPS has failed to learn the lessons from
Why we’re different: a profile of the Placitas
—ROBIN BRANDIN, PLACITAS RECYCLING CENTER
Many residents who move to Placitas are confused and sometimes frustrated
by the Placitas Recycling Center’s procedures and seemingly
endless changes in the materials it accepts. Some came from places
that provide curbside collection of recyclables and may not require
them to be sorted or segregated. The Placitas Recycling Center has
a few unique qualities that help explain why it is different from
1. We are an all-volunteer operation. The Placitas Recycling Association,
including its board members and the people who staff the center,
are all volunteers from the Placitas community. The volunteers who
are there on Saturday mornings work hard hours, sometimes in adverse
weather, to provide a community service. Furthermore, most of the
materials collected at the center are transported to buyers during
the week by volunteers, and the plastic is baled on site, again
by volunteers. There is no staff to comb through and separate items,
so when they are dropped off at the center, they need to be in a
form that is acceptable to the buyers. Anyone who has been at the
center during Saturday rush periods has witnessed how busy the volunteers
get and knows they do not have time to sort through materials that
are not adequately segregated.
2. We are largely self-sufficient. Unlike municipal recycling
services, the Placitas Recycling Association is a non-profit organization,
not a government entity. Although the association has received some
generous grants, primarily for site improvements, it has no sustained
funding source. Costs of operating and maintaining the site and
its transport vehicle and trailers are financed through proceeds
from selling the materials collected there. That is the reason items
accepted at the center are limited to materials for which there
is a market, and also the reason it is important that they be properly
segregated. Buyers will only tolerate a certain percentage of contaminants,
and some materials, such as white office paper, fetch more money
than others. Only certain plastics (No. 1 and 2) are economically
viable to recycle. While the center sometimes recycles materials
with no monetary value, as a service, it cannot accept materials,
like glass, for which there is no recycling outlet at all.
3. Waste reduction is our priority. The Placitas Recycling Association’s
primary goal is to reduce the amount of material that is put into
the landfill. As such, it supports all forms of waste reduction
and promotes reuse as well as recycling. Some people have sheepishly
asked if they can take items out of the recycling center, concerned
about affecting the center’s revenues. Recycling is preferable
to disposal in a landfill, but reuse is preferable to recycling.
Therefore, the center has moving boxes and packing materials available
for reuse that can be picked up during its Saturday morning hours.
4. We are a community-based organization. Unlike many waste disposal
and recycling services, the Placitas Recycling Association is not
a government agency or large corporation. All board members and
volunteers come from the local community. Without community support,
there can be no Placitas Recycling Center. Board members and volunteers
are always needed. Officers of the board include the President,
Vice President (currently vacant), Secretary, and Treasurer, and
there is a Volunteer Coordinator, as well as a Long-Range Planning
Committee that develops projects for improving the center and the
service it provides. Volunteers can work on Saturday mornings or
help out during the week with baling plastic or transporting materials
to buyers. Anyone interested in becoming a board member or volunteer
is welcome to sign up at the recycling center or call Fran Stephens
The Placitas Recycling Center is located on Highway 165, just
east of the I-25 intersection, and is open every Saturday morning
from 8 to 11 a.m. Information about accepted materials is available
at the center, or online at www.placitasrecycling.com.
Las Placitas Association March events
• Placitas Open Space Stewardship Day: March 17, 9 a.m.
to 3 p.m. We will be guided by representatives from the City of
Albuquerque Open Space Division on several projects in the Placitas
Open Space. We may work on continued fence removal or starting the
trail system at the east entrance. Meet at the Homesteads Village
parking lot at 9 a.m.
• Fire Education Workshop sponsored by the Coronado Soil
and Water Conservation District and the New Mexico State Forestry
Department: March 24, 9 a.m. to noon at the San Antonio Catholic
Church in Placitas. The workshop will focus on understanding and
managing the risk of wildland fires to homeowners who have chosen
to live either in or on the fringes of forests, which is the zone
fire managers describe as the "wildland-urban interface,"
a term that aptly describes portions of Placitas. The keynote speaker
will be George Duda of the NM State Forestry Department.
• Landscape Health for Homeowners in the Las Huertas Creek
Watershed: March 31, 9 a.m. to noon at the Placitas Presbyterian
Church. Craig Sponholtz, founder and president of Dryland Solutions,
Inc. will present techniques useful to Placitas landowners for restoration,
erosion control, passive water harvesting, and agroecology techniques
that promote overall land health.
The general public is invited to all LPA events. Watch for the
2007 event schedule, which will be mailed in early March. Please
check the LPA website at www.lasplacitas.org
for event details.
Forest Service reconsiders harm from cattle grazing
Conservation groups applauded a decision by the Gila National
Forest Service to withdraw a controversial plan that would have
reopened an area that had been recovering for more than a decade
from previous cattle grazing. The plan to graze the Hermosa Allotment
could have harmed more than one hundred miles of streams, jeopardized
the integrity of native vegetation, and further impaired the habitat
of the critically endangered Mexican gray wolf and other rare species.
The Hermosa Allotment is part of the Blue Range Wolf Recovery
Area and provides habitat for numerous other federally listed wildlife
species, including the bald eagle, the Mexican spotted owl, and
the Chiricahua leopard frog. It also provides habitat for at least
four rare and sensitive plants that are known to be harmed by livestock
grazing operations. Though the allotment has been in non-use for
the last thirteen years, conditions there are poor to fair, and
experiencing a downward trend. The proposed decision would have
opened the allotment as a grass bank, for use when other allotments
were subjected to prescribed and naturally ignited fires.
“There is no reason to open this allotment for a grass bank,”
said Greta Anderson, range restoration coordinator at the Center
for Biological Diversity. “The land is in poor shape and in
need of rest-recovery. The Forest Service has absolutely no obligation
to provide forage on public lands when feeding livestock conflicts
with ecological needs. We thank the agency for remembering that
on the Hermosa Allotment.”
The allotment contains over 60,000 acres of public land, two-thirds
of which would have been closed to grazing under the proposed plan
because the land is not suited to support cattle. The remaining
lands, however, were to be used year-round without adequate protection
for riparian areas, range conditions, or the needs of other species.
The government’s environmental documents admit that under
the plan, no improvement in resource conditions was expected during
the next ten years.
The groups’ appeal can be found at www.fguardians.org/gr/index.asp.