The Galisteo Wildway

A Confluence of Land Restoration Initiatives over Twenty-Five Years

Spring time in the Galisteo Basin.
Spring time in the Galisteo Basin.

By Jan-Willem Jansens

About 25 years ago, a group of Santa Fe permaculture teachers and land conservationists came together on the Barclay Ranch, a private ranch along the Galisteo Creek. They were involved in new conservation initiatives in the Santa Fe area. The population in the city and county was growing rapidly, and a small but growing number of people were exploring the meanings of the term “sustainability.” These people were particularly aware that rain and wind carry away valuable topsoil and that severe storms and spring runoff cause flooding downstream. Water management, erosion control and growing local food were topics of the day.

Permaculture, a philosophy of durable cultivation and sustainable living, based on the practice of the permanent cultivation of vegetative cover on a piece of land, had blown over to northern New Mexico in the 1980s from California and Australia. Various consulting businesses had sprung up with blooming practices. Practitioners would gather monthly in the Santa Fe Permaculture Breakfast Club to share experiences and news. The Permaculture Drylands Institute served as a regional coordinating body and issued a monthly magazine, Dryland Permaculture.

At the same time, several concerned landowners and conservation experts sought to work with the city and county to preserve undeveloped land in the eastern foothills of Santa Fe and across the Galisteo Basin. They also labored to formalize and expand the network of social trails around Atalaya Mountain. Before long, the concept of conservation easements became a hot topic. These ideas laid the foundation for the establishment in 1993 of the Santa Fe Conservation Trust (SFCT). This organization joined several other initiatives across the state, such as the Forest Trust, which sought to establish formal land protection agreements between landowners, land trust organizations and attorneys to preserve private lands in perpetuity.

Some of the same permaculture and land conservation people who had gathered at Barclay Ranch in 1993 were active in the other two movements. They realized that it was necessary to also have more education and demonstration opportunities for landowners in the area in order to promote land restoration and conservation. This idea became the foundation for establishment of the Earth Works Institute (EWI) as a local organization whose goal was to develop and spread methods of sustainable living in the Southwest and beyond. EWI focused on experiments and training workshops on erosion control, water harvesting, local food production and construction with local and natural materials. EWI’s founder, Leslie Barclay, endowed the organization with part of her ranch to establish a demonstration site. Hundreds of area residents and school kids participated in workshops on a variety of green building and land restoration techniques, with guidance from expert staff and some of the best guest teachers on those subjects from all over the world.

A few years later, however, the focus of the public debate about conservation in northern New Mexico shifted to forest management and local community rights regarding the use of national forest lands. This debate came to a head during forest closures imposed to resolve legal disputes over the protection of endangered species, such as the Mexican spotted owl, in which the rights of local, traditional communities to cut and gather wood and graze cattle were compromised. A severe drought scorched New Mexico from late 1995 through much of 1996. Few suspected that this would be the beginning of a 20-year drought that would put an end to a relatively wet period that had lasted for about 30 years. The drought also marked a period of increased frequency and size of catastrophic wildfires in forests, woodlands and grasslands across New Mexico.

The public debate over protection of endangered species and the traditional uses of public lands raged for several years and led to the closure of dozens of small sawmills, the loss of hundreds of local forestry jobs and a lot of hurt feelings. Eventually, starting in 1997, some form of resolution was achieved with the establishment of several new initiatives, such as then-Sen. Bingaman’s statewide forest roundtable meetings, a gradual expansion of small woodcutting contracts, an increase of Youth Conservation Corps projects, the growth of a watershed protection program of the NMED Surface Water Quality Bureau, and the establishment of collaborative conservation groups, such as the Quivira Coalition and the Santa Fe Watershed Association (SFWA). At the same time, private charitable foundations in New Mexico began supporting ecological restoration and rural poverty alleviation projects. Sen. Bingaman’s forest roundtables eventually led to the enactment in 2000 of the U.S. Forest Service Collaborative Forest Restoration Program (CFRP) for New Mexico. All these new initiatives had a significant impact on conservation and restoration work in the Galisteo Basin.

After experiencing severe flooding and erosion on its demonstration ranch, EWI established the Galisteo Watershed Restoration Project in 1998, supported by local foundations and the NMED watershed program. The goal was to create a watershed association that could help coordinate and disseminate practical information and projects for soil and water conservation throughout the area.

In 2000, EWI launched a series of collaborative demonstration projects along the Galisteo Creek in Lower Cañoncito, the village of Galisteo and around Cerrillos. These projects included hundreds of residents of the watershed and Santa Fe as well as many students from elementary schools and UNM. In 2003, EWI started a series of meetings with public partners, such as the Santa Fe County Planning Department, National Park Service, BLM, and the N.M. Department of Transportation, and also with private landowners and conservation groups, to frame the terms of a watershed association. Under the leadership of EWI, the Santa Fe County Land Use administrator and a professional facilitator, the various public and private partners formed a steering committee in early 2004, and this collaborative team organized a series of planning sessions at Vista Clara Ranch and Resort in Galisteo. By June 2004, more than 50 participants who had a stake in the area established the Galisteo Watershed Partnership (GWP).

The GWP immediately went to work and helped influence public input into construction initiatives in the Galisteo Basin. Some of those included the widening and reconstruction of State Highway 14 through the western part of the Basin and the Highway 285 corridor. The GWP also weighed in on the alignment of the Railrunner commuter rail line, the development of the conservation development program of the Galisteo Basin Preserve, and community development plans for the San Marcos District and the Village of Galisteo. In June 2005, EWI completed a watershed action strategy for the Galisteo watershed area, and the GWP received public recognition by the Board of County Commissioners of Santa Fe County. Simultaneously, the SFCT, a leading non-profit partner of the GWP, established a growing number of conservation easements in the Basin—including several associated with the Galisteo Basin Preserve. In early 2006, EWI and SFCT also received a state grant to develop a comprehensive conservation plan for the Basin, called the Galisteo Watershed Conservation Initiative (GWCI) and another state grant for a comprehensive wetlands restoration assessment and action plan for the area. Santa Fe County did its part by establishing several Open Space properties in the Basin, encompassing several thousands of acres.

In March 2007, landowners alerted the GWP that a “wildcatting” business had begun exploration of oil and gas development in the central and western parts of the Galisteo Basin. In the months following, the GWP organized information meetings and facilitated the establishment of two citizen action groups. These activities marked the beginning of an intensive process of public outreach and county planning procedures. The initial work by SFCT and EWI on assessments and mapping of natural and cultural resources of conservation value in the Basin through the GWCI offered a unique information trove on water, wildlife and cultural resources. Santa Fe County and then-Gov. Richardson readily used these data to support the passage of oil and gas moratoria for the area. Later this information supported the 2008 Santa Fe County Oil and Gas Development Ordinance and the 2010 Sustainable Growth Management Plan.

Over the years, guided by the 2005 Watershed Restoration Action Strategy, the 2007 Wetlands Action Plan for the Galisteo Basin and the 2010 conservation prioritization scheme of the GWCI, EWI and other partners raised more than $2 million in public and private funds for a diverse program of land restoration demonstration projects throughout the Basin. More than two miles of streams and wetlands were stabilized and hundreds of acres of land were restored to their original forest, woodland or grassland ecology. Restoration projects included work at various locations in the Galisteo Creek, in the Eldorado Community Preserve in Cañoncito, in the Galisteo bosque, in the Galisteo Basin Preserve, on Glorieta Mesa, and on various private properties throughout the Basin. At the same time, the SFCT continued to grow its area of conservation easement properties, and Santa Fe County established the Thornton Ranch Open Space and acquired the Ortiz Mountain Preserve. Around 2012, the BLM and State Land Office did their part by announcing that their lands in the Galisteo Basin would not be used for extractive industries and will be preserved for wildlife and their cultural resource values.

Meanwhile, in 2008 and 2009, the GWP organized a series of workshops about the wildlife qualities of the Basin. These events drew the interest of regional and national wildlife conservation groups. The meetings stimulated the establishment of several wildlife initiatives, such as the formation of the New Mexico Wildways (NMW) network and the Santa Fe County focal species and wildlife corridors project. Supported by Wildlands Network, an international coalition for wildlife corridors, NMW became an informal network of about a dozen conservation wildlife corridor initiatives in New Mexico. The Santa Fe County wildlife corridor project led to a series of multi-stakeholder conversations about wildlife conservation, the development of a focal species list, several research reports by New Mexico State University (NMSU), and coordination work between wildlife conservation agencies and counties surrounding Santa Fe County. These activities brought the importance of wildlife habitat and corridor conservation front and center in the awareness of landowners and land management agencies. Among national and international wildlife conservation groups, the Galisteo Basin became also known as the Galisteo Wildway.

At the close of 2012, a number of private ranches had also indicated interest in following good stewardship practices to conserve viewsheds for tourism, film industry purposes and future land values. With these ranches, the total of protected and well-managed areas in the Basin reached over 130,000 acres or nearly 28 percent of the watershed area. Together, these conservation areas spread diagonally from the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in the northeast to the Ortiz Mountains in the southwest across the Basin, forming an effective wildlife linkage area for bear, bobcat, foxes, cougar and deer along the Galisteo Creek and the volcanic ridges that crisscross the landscape. The rural character of the area, along with a new definition of lot sizes and development restrictions, had been encoded in the goals and policies for this part of the County in the 2010 Santa Fe County Sustainable Growth Management Plan and 2012 Sustainable Land Development Code.

Since 2012, work has continued on private conservation and restoration projects through initiatives from the SFCT, WildEarth Guardians, Ecotone Landscape Planning, and community groups and landowners. One of the most recent accomplishments is the ecological restoration of nearly 28 acres of wetland area in the Galisteo bosque in the village of Galisteo. Other projects include ongoing recreational trail development in the Galisteo Basin Preserve and the Eldorado Community Preserve, and Santa Fe County accomplishments in improving the Rail Trail and in developing management and master plans for the Thornton Ranch Open Space and other County Open Space properties in the Basin. Landowners and community groups have been successful in staving off gravel mining on La Bajada Mesa, gold mining in the Ortiz Mountains, and a rail transfer point for crude oil in Lamy, and in winning water rights and conservation lawsuits. These projects continue to offer Basin residents, along with numerous conservationists and outdoor enthusiasts, opportunities to enjoy the fruits of more than 25 years of homegrown collaborative conservation work.

Jan-Willem Jansens is a landscape planner and the owner of Ecotone Landscape Planning, LLC. He is the former executive director of Earth Works Institute and was co-founder of the Galisteo Watershed Partnership and New Mexico Wildways. He has served on city, county and federal advisory committees for natural resource conservation and currently serves on the Land Conservation Committee of the Santa Fe Conservation Trust.

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