May 2011

The Galisteo Wildway

Jan-Willem Jansens

I have heard many people rave about the beauty of the Galisteo Basin. For those who are in on this public secret, it’s an enigmatic landscape with a treasure chest of hidden surprises ranging from stunning vistas, ever changing color schemes, jaw-dropping geologic features, a great diversity of wildland areas, and splendid cultural and historic resources. It is also ancestral homeland to thousands of Native people all over northern New Mexico.

While the land looks dry and barren at first, it hides a surprising number of springs, seeps, small wetlands, and even some perennial streams, which historically supported an important part of the Tano Pueblo Indian culture1. Later the land attracted a large population in the now historic mining towns of Cerrillos and Madrid. In the last three decades the Basin has again become habitat of some 18,000 rural and suburban residents who treasure the area’s many historical, natural and visual qualities.

Habitat only of people? No! People are gradually discovering that the Galisteo Basin is a “Grand Central” for lots of wildlife. In the last few years, many residents have reported sightings of deer, pronghorn antelope, bear, cougar, bobcats, bats, badgers, foxes, prairie dogs, more than sixty bird species, and perhaps less popular but equally important members of the ecosystem such as rattlesnakes, pack rats, mosquitoes and many other insects.

Has it always been like this? Going back 800 years, it is quite likely that buffalo occasionally found ways to roam from the wide prairie of eastern New Mexico into the grasslands of the central Galisteo Basin. These royal animals may have grazed across the basin’s broadly fanning slopes with grass belly-high, and quenched their thirst from the small drainages with bogs and wet meadows, here and there lined by willow and cottonwood groves, which ran from the mesas and ridges down to the Galisteo Creek. From the vantage point of a soaring bald eagle, the landscape probably looked like a mosaic of grasslands interspersed with woodlands on the hills and ponderosa pines on the mesas and the higher ridges. On the rhythm of wet and dry years, wildfire directed the advance and retreat of woodlands on the grassy plains. Elk, deer, big cats, wolves and many other animals probably shared this dynamic habitat and traversed it to reach other core habitat areas.

However, moving forward to the early 1800s, when the Galisteo Basin was grazed by tens of thousands of sheep, when trappers were about to exterminate the beaver in the headwaters, and when early explorers were turning over every stone in streams and on hillsides in search of gold, many of the larger animals probably had a much harder time. With the grasslands eaten by sheep, and the elk and deer possibly a primary hunting target, I wonder what place mountain lions had in this ecosystem. Would bats have found sufficient numbers of mosquitoes and other insects to thrive? Or was there not enough open water left for them?

Old journals tell us that in the late 1840s when miner-forty-niners came through the Galisteo Basin and crossed the Galisteo Creek in the current village of Galisteo by putting a plank across the stream, they found the surrounding landscape barren except for cholla cactus, yucca and juniper. Would there have been enough to eat for deer and antelope in this landscape where the only grass to support the horses of Fort Marcy in Santa Fe was to be found in Galisteo? What effect would this have had on other animal species? And how did these animals survive the following hundred years dominated by railroad development, intense cattle grazing, mining, logging, tremendous soil erosion and the rapid proliferation of barbed wire fences across the range?

Despite this history of intensive use and abuse of its resources, the Galisteo Basin’s wildland character remains; quiet, vast and magnificent during an icy winter day; quivering in the sweltering heat of summer; evocatively beckoning us to explore it with all our senses in the golden glow of the sunset. Despite all this, the land is still–and perhaps increasingly so–a wildway for big cats, bear, deer, pronghorn antelope, bats, raptors, migratory birds, waterfowl, and perhaps even for the elusive yellow-billed cuckoo.

This critical wildlife linkage has always existed, but only recently have people realized its importance. In 2010, supported by the New Mexico Wildways initiative, Earth Works Institute recognized it with a name: the Galisteo Wildway! In the last few years, many land conservation initiatives, ecological restoration projects, and responsible private land management practices seem to have conspired to preserve a vast swath of wildland, strung together by the Galisteo Creek and its tributaries, connecting the Sangre de Cristo Mountains with the Ortiz and Sandia Mountains, and the Glorieta Mesa with the Rio Grande and the Jemez Mountains.

It was not until a few decades ago that conservation biology pioneers such as Dave Forman, Reed Noss and Michael Soulé formulated their vision of large wildlife corridors that cross the continent from Alaska to Mexico. Out of their dreams came the initiatives for the identification and conservation of lands in the New Mexico Highlands/Wildlands Network Vision for the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the Sky Islands Wildlands Vision for the insular mountain ranges from the Ortiz Mountains to the Gila. These wildlands visions, strung together with the Yellowstone to Yukon Wildlands initiative, now comprise the Western Wildway across the “spine” of the continent.

The Galisteo Basin is a confluence of four NM ecoregions and a crucial crossroads in this continental wildlife habitat network. As an ecological transition area it is biologically diverse, but also very susceptible to be carved up by a maze of property boundaries, to be fragmented by roads, fences and energy transmission lines, and to be disrupted and polluted by oil and gas infrastructure, quarries, and ex-urban development. Thanks to the work of Santa Fe County, the foresight of Santa Fe Conservation Trust, Commonweal Conservancy, the Nature Conservancy, the Archaeological Conservancy, and various public land management agencies, and the ecological restoration projects of Kewa (Santo Domingo) Pueblo, Earth Works Institute and many landowners, the Galisteo Basin is closer than ever before to functioning again as a wildway bridge between the different ecoregions.

You can be part of this exciting initiative. Please join us during upcoming events in the Galisteo Basin and consider supporting NM Wildways and the Galisteo Wildway initiative by contacting one of its partner organizations (see inset). Finally, if you live in the Galisteo Basin, please share the wildway with wildlife: your habitat is their habitat as well, and they need it to survive and to keep the Galisteo Basin as rich and diverse as it has ever been.

1Ȁ See, for example, Lucy Lippard’s recent book “Down Country – The Tano of the Galisteo Basin, 1250 and 1782” with splendid black-and-white photography by Edward Ranney.

Jan-Willem Jansens is the Executive Director of Earth Works Institute and a co-founder of New Mexico Wildways. He can be reached by e-mail at Also visit for more information about his work.

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