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SWCCA talks about jaguar habitat and a proposed national monument

The Southwestern County Commissions Alliance met in Reserve on Wednesday, Sept. 26.

Attending the meeting were Catron County commissioners Hugh B. McKeen, Richard McGuire and Glyn Griffin, as well as Grant County Commissioner Gabriel Ramos, who serves as chairman, and Hidalgo County Commissioner Darr Shannon, who is secretary of the alliance. Luna County and Sierra County representatives did not attend.

"We need to get hold of Socorro County," Ramos said. "I know they are close to signing the JPA, but we haven't heard back."

He requested three items to be added to the agenda—discussion on the Catwalk, Salaiz Pass restroom and landfill fees.



During public input, Donna Stevens, Upper Gila Watershed Alliance director, said she had a few comments on the Travel Management Plan in the Gila National Forest, "which seems to be of particular concern to this group. I assume you commissioners are in favor of fiscal responsibility and balanced budgets."

She cited pages 46-49 of the draft Environmental Impact Statement, where the Forest Service discusses the cost of maintaining roads. Between $880,000 and $1.2 million is spent annually to maintain only 500 miles of level 3-5 roads, which comprise about 10 percent of the roads and are ones that passenger cars are able to navigate.  "Only 140 miles are level 2, which are dirt roads that require high-clearance vehicles. Level 2 roads are the ones causing the most erosion and allowing sediment to flow into streams.  UGWA is concerned about the streams and aquatic habitat. You can't fix the streams until you fix the roads. I want to remind you that the Gila National Forest preferred alternative still leaves 3,300 miles of roads open to the public."

Dan Lorimier, lobbyist and conservationist for the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club thanked the commissioners for holding the meeting in Reserve.

Kim McCreery of the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance, who described herself as a carnivore biologist, said she wanted to entertain a different way to look at wolves. "I think the ranchers and wolves have more in common than you think. Neither wants ranchettes to spring up everywhere. Ranchers need to push the Forest Service to set up community allotments where ranchers can move their cattle from where wolves are denning."

"Ranchers should have the right to manage wolves," McCreery said. "A rancher was given a financial incentive to hire someone to watch the cattle and keep wolves away, but before the agreement could be signed, he changed his mind. The Forest Service gets in the way, but so do people who live in the area get in the way."

She alleged that in Yellowstone National Park, $35 million more is put into the economy because of wolves being in the park. "Wolves may help ranchers keep their land and stop the springing up of ranchettes. We need to work together to find solutions."

McCreery also questioned why the alliance is concerned with the possible establishment of the Organ Mountains-Desert Peaks National Monument. "I am puzzled why the alliance is discussing the issue, because Doña Ana County is not part of the alliance. All stakeholders did have a voice. I have a fact sheet on the monument I would like to give to you because there is a lot of misinformation out there."

"The New Mexico Wilderness Alliance is not anti-ORV," she said. "We are advocating for responsible use."

Ramos asked that McCreery give a presentation at the next SWCCA meeting on the proposed national monument.

McCreery said she also had statistics showing that more people watch wildlife than hunt and fish in New Mexico. Ramos said it was comparing apples and oranges, and "it is different in the Gila."

Under old business, a discussion item with possible action comprised of a letter and resolution supporting House Bill 4334, sponsored by U.S. Congressman Steve Pearce, was tabled until the next meeting. The bill proposes an Organ Mountains National Monument, without the Desert Peaks portion. Shannon said Pearce believes in a responsible alternative to the current proposed monument of more than 600,000 acres.

"We will listen to the presentation and then make our decision," Ramos said.

Also discussed was the organization of a work group to work on county resource land plans and intergovernmental coordination with federal land management agencies.

Ramos said Grant County Commission Chairman Brett Kasten would serve if requested, but he preferred to speak to someone more knowledgeable first to see if he would be interested in being part of the group. At the last meeting in Deming, Commissioner Alvin Campbell of Sierra County, "Bucky" Allred of Catron County and Javier Diaz, Luna County commissioner, volunteered for the work group.

Under new business, discussion and possible action addressed the possible creation of critical habitat for the jaguar.

Shannon had drawn up a letter that included a list of comments that area residents would be sending to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, regarding the creation of jaguar habitat. Alliance members approved the letter and comments to be sent by Oct. 19. She said jaguar expert Dennis Parker was leading the way on comments.

She also created a letter, due by Oct. 4, to the USFWS, requesting a formal public hearing "to show that we are interested in the issue." It, too, was approved.

Shannon pointed out that in 1997, when a proposal was made to create jaguar habitat, the FWS deemed it "not prudent," and during the re-evaluation in 2007, the agency said no areas in the U.S. met designation criteria because no female jaguars are residents of the areas proposed. It also said the climate and habitat were not proper, because jaguars like water.

Parker had requested $1,250 to write the comments. Arizona southeastern counties will pick up $625 of the tab, while the Arizona-New Mexico Coalition of Counties will pay $500, and because all of Hidalgo County is included in the proposed critical habitat, it will pay the final $125.

A discussion ensued on the impact of the dismantling of the Catwalk in the Catwalk National Monument on Catron County businesses. "We would like to see it put back," McKeen said. "We had a meeting in Glenwood and almost all businesses in Glenwood and Alma are suffering. There's more traffic, but they are just traveling through and not stopping to stay at the hotels, buy gas, or eat. Running Horse Gallery has closed. We can't understand why it was taken out and we want it back. They removed the floor and railing, but left the structure, so it would not be a big undertaking to put back."

McKeen said the Burned Area Response Team was not in favor of putting it back now. "It seems the local ranger and staff don't count."

Aaron Baldridge with the U.S. Forest Service explained the reason the floor and railing were removed was to prevent debris buildup in case of flooding.

McKeen said in the 1970s and 1980s, "huge floods came through and the Catwalk had only minor damage."

Baldridge said winter flooding was a concern.

The alliance will consider writing a letter in support of Catron County's letter to the Regional Forester Corbin Newman.

The next issue was the Salaiz Pass restroom, known in the area as the "million-dollar restroom," which is now closed. Baldridge said the composting system did not work because the temperatures were too cold to maintain the microbes, which do the composting of the waste. "The Forest Service is considering the costs of an alternative of retrofitting the restroom with a tank system or a vaulted system or do we even put a new one there or not at all. When it was open, we would find lots of trash and damage to the system, and we spent a lot of time maintaining it. We are also considering making it ADA-compliant, dependent on funding."

Ramos suggested Porta-Potties might be a better alternative.

Shannon, in surprise, asked: "There is the possibility of putting in a new restroom, but not putting the Catwalk back?"

The last item of discussion was the issue of landfill fees. Several counties, including Grant County, have requested the New Mexico Association of Counties put as a priority the issue of allowing counties to put the fee on as part of the property-tax bill, because the fee is so difficult to collect.

The issue will be discussed with a letter and resolution for consideration at the next meeting.

As a final item of business, alliance members approved a resolution rejecting the USFWS proposal of a critical habitat of 832,000 acres for the jaguar.

Ramos suggested that at future meetings a roundtable be put at the end of the meeting, to allow counties to discuss any issues of concern, as well as telling the other commissioners what their county was doing. Ramos said Grant County is dealing with road issues, and Shannon said Hidalgo County also has concerns about roads and maintenance.

The next meeting will take place at 1 p.m., Wednesday, Oct. 24 at the Hidalgo County Courthouse Commission Chambers in Lordsburg.

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