Evolving from Conservation Easement to Land Stewardship

 

Brad and Kathy Holian
Eleven years ago, we purchased nearly 500 acres of an old ranching operation on Glorieta Mesa to save it for wildlife and recreational uses. Working with Santa Fe Conservation Trust, we put two contiguous parcels of land into conservation easements, limiting future development to one 5-acre site on each easement.

 

As we explored the land we had bought, we began to see that the piñón and juniper forest was heavily overgrown, crowding into stands of tall ponderosa pines and creating a dangerous “ladder fuels” habitat. Ladder fuels create a pathway for low-intensity ground fires to easily erupt into massive crown fires in the canopy. A catastrophic crown fire, fueled by the hot, dry winds of May and June could blacken the mesa for decades to come. To prevent this nightmare, we began thinning the forest.

 

About the same time, we discovered that a poorly designed access road through the property was causing the erosion of the forest and grasslands along the roadway. Before we knew it, we had another project on our hands—repairing the damaged roadbed and improving the drainage, especially in the riparian area of Padre Springs Creek, which flows from its headwaters southwesterly across our land. In addition, the stock tanks along the creek, a critical wildlife water resource, needed attention and would silt up without routine maintenance.

 

As we learned more about the degraded condition of the grasslands, a result of the slow invasion of the piñón and juniper trees, and the hazardous environs in the overgrown stands of the forest, we realized that a more comprehensive conservation-planning process was required.

 

We contracted with Jan-Willem Jansens of Ecotone to write a comprehensive 20-year forest-management plan. Beginning in 2013, in partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (USDA/NRCS), we undertook major waterway-restoration projects to rebuild the dams and spillways for three historic stock tanks in the drainage.

 

The riparian renovation was a true collaboration. Jan-Willem Jansens supervised the work using designs from Steve Vrooman, Van Clothier and the Quivira Coalition. Mechanical help came from Gary Bates and his trusty Bobcat. Some 20 hardy volunteers from the Albuquerque Wildlife Federation contributed time and labor. We contributed financial resources for more than 90 tons of rock, pond liner and grass seed, as well as “sweat equity” to the projects.

 

The creation of one-rock dams, Zuni bowls, media lunas, and other structures have slowed water flow and enhanced the vegetation coverage of exposed soil.

 

Work on thinning, with a professional chain-saw crew and volunteer “swampers” to lop and scatter branches for soil-erosion control, will begin in late fall along the main access road, to complement the drainage structures that have already been installed. Thinning will be more aggressive within the first 50 feet on each side of the roadbed and graduated for 50 feet beyond that. The result will be a more defined firebreak, as well as allowing snow to melt on the road in wintertime.

 

As part of our long-term forest-restoration project, we have designated meadowlands as potential staging areas for firefighters in the event of wildfire. In fact, we welcome them! We have constructed an off-grid cabin, which has 10,000 gallons of water dedicated to firefighting and will serve as headquarters for managing the land-restoration projects, as well as being a focal point for educational tours we want to offer.

 

The name “Glorieta Freedom Ranch” is meant to invoke the feeling of freedom from development and extractive energy grids. It does not imply the freedom to do anything one wishes with the land, nor is it freedom from a sense of responsibility for the land. We are proud to tell people that, at one time, we thought of ourselves as owners of the land; now, we understand that the land owns us—our hearts and souls.

 

 

Brad and Kathy Holian are landowners in Santa Fe County. Kathy Holian is a Santa Fe County commissioner.