The Sandoval Signpost

An Independent Monthly Newsmagazine Serving the Community since 1989


Mary Stuever

Mary Stuever, at home in the forest

Forester’s Log
Creating cottonwoods

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 1970s.

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

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 dollars.

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 not impose.

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 that tragedy.

Why we’re different: a profile of the 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 other locations.

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 at 867-3077.

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

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 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


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