[Editor's Note: This is part 2 of a multi-article series on the Grant County Commission's work session and regular meeting June 8 and 10, 2021.]
The second presentation at the Grant County Commission work session on June 8, 2021, came from Silver City District Ranger Beth Ihle and Recreation Program Manager Christa Osborn.
Ihle reported on the vegetation work the forest has been implementing. "We have had very successful prescribed burns. We burned about 5,000 acres in the Burros; we did thinning in the Georgetown area; and we did a fall burn last year in Jaybird Canyon north of Signal Peak. We are putting in an application along with the NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) for funds for vegetation management. We want to do more thinning in the WUI (Wildland Urban interface). The NRCS has programs for private property owners that want to manage their vegetation. Areas we are looking at for management are Bear Creek to Signal Peak, the XYZ Ranch and the Pinos Altos area. We mirror the Grant County WUI priorities in the management plan. The state and BLM are also doing work."
She noted the ongoing fires as of Tuesday. They include the Drummond Fire in the Black Range, "which has slopped over into Grant County, although it's in the T or C Ranger District. It's about 500 acres and didn't really get going, but we're still watching it. The Johnson Fire in Catron County west of the Gila Cliff Dwellings in the wilderness continues to grow. [Today, June 11, it is at more than 50,000 acres.] It is having an impact on recreation, with the closing of the Cliff Dwellings. It has a big footprint, and it has limitations on fighting it because it is in the wilderness. So far, White Creek Cabin is fine. We brought in additional crews from Montana and Wyoming. They rotate in and out. We have a cooperative relationship with them. We get started first and end last, but we help them when they need it. I also want to thank the volunteer fire departments for helping us with new starts. We had a small one near Fierro."
Ihle said a lot of grazing permittees have dropped their cattle numbers because of the drought. "It's dire right now."
"I want to give a shout out to partnership with groups like the Continental Divide Trail, the Heart of the Gila, the Gila Backcountry Horsemen and others on trail work," Ihle said. "The Gila has great outdoors opportunities. The American Conservation Experience is also helping us with trails. We've had hitches because of the Johnson Fire, but there are plenty of trails that need work."
She said the Gila National Forest is also cooperating on the Little Rock Mine expansion by Freeport-McMoRan. "We are working with the BLM on the analysis."
She gave a shout out also to everyone in Grant County who has made the vaccine widely available, as well as "to the folks who kept our office open. We had big leadership from our Community Task Force working on pandemic issues."
Osborn presented on a recreation fee proposal that has been developed. "We started the initiative in December 2019 with the five New Mexico forests, Gila, Lincoln, Cibola, Carson and Santa Fe, working together. We started seeing comments that month, but when Covid hit, it slowed things down. We started relaunching it in September 2020 with public releases and signs at trailheads. Part of the process is the public engagement piece to find out what people want at developed areas. We will end public comment at the end of September 2021. In our six ranger districts, we have about 400,000 visitors a year. We have 151 developed areas and three wilderness areas. We only charge a fee at the highly developed areas, but it is critical to maintain all the areas. That's where all the recreation fees go. We had a market analysis, but public input is the most important part." The website to get more information on the fee changes and where is https://www.fs.usda.gov/gila .
The website to make comments is: SM.FS.R3FeeProComm@usda.gov .
She noted the Gila National Forest has had a fee schedule since the 1990s, and "we are planning to raise the Catwalk rate from $3 to $5. 60 percent of the areas will still be free, but the 32 percent that already have fees will be increased. For instance, it will cost $10 a night for developed campgrounds. Recreationists will also have an option to purchase an annual $40 Enchantment Pass, which will allow them into all standard amenity sites. It's a great value. We are still working on the public meetings for comment. The signs we have put out have QR codes so people can go directly to the comments page. We will be collecting comments through the end of September and then implement in 2022. We want to hear from visitors and local users."
District 2 Commissioner Javier "Harvey" Salas said that Grant County wants to enhance "our forest for economic development. For areas that are heavily used, what can we do to capture some money? One specific question I often get is why there are no dump stations. Maybe there could be a fee for that? Also, we have a lot of ATVs out there. I was surprised and grateful to see law enforcement managing that. I would like to see that expand."
Osborn said those were great questions. "Part of the fee proposal is for a dump station at Mesa Campground. Then another at the Visitor Center, which is closed at present. One is also proposed at Quemado. For dispersed recreation areas, we would like to figure out how to manage them. If money was generated, we could have more law enforcement."
Ihle said there is also a role for private entities. "Our sites don't accommodate everyone, such as large trailers. I think the option to grow that is private companies. For instance, a lot of people stay in Idaho Falls, which is 80 miles away from Yellowstone, which is where they are going. This is a good start. We have tons of opportunities."
Osborn said the Great American Outdoors Recreation Plan has $1 million to spend. "We're working on that. We hope we can collaborate with everyone."
Salas said the county wants to develop between Silver City and the Mining District. "What is the first step?"
Ihle said: "Fort Bayard. It is one of the key reasons for the Southwest Collaborative. I think it is ripe for more discussion. It is a gem, but it needs a ton of love. I see the Collaborative as us continuing to push. Santa Clara is working on Fort Bayard, and it needs all of us to participate with them."
Osborn noted with Fort Bayard and with the new county trail master plan the county has a good opportunity.
District 5 Commissioner Harry Browne asked if there were any data on what percentage of use of the forest is from Grant County or elsewhere.
"We don't, but we're trying to get start a digital collection at the Catwalk," Osborn said. "We hope to expand the reservation process on rec.gov to get more data. Our Quemado site will be part. We don't want all to be on the reservation site, because we want some to be first come, first serve."
Ihle said during the off season, most use of the forest is by locals. "The Catwalk is a destination, with a lot of people coming from Texas and Arizona. Grant County is a big recreating community. I see a lot of frequent fliers on the same trails every morning. It's a real mix."
Osborn said the national Forest Service implements a survey every five year, and "we are implementing it right now. This is our fourth time to implement the survey, and it's another way to gather data."
Browne asked if fees were only for campgrounds.
Osborn said it would be $10 per night for campgrounds, and not for all of them, but also "we are proposing a day use fee, for instance $5 for the Little Walnut Picnic Ground. We're also promoting $5 fee for use of the Quemado Lake Recreation Area, the Lake Roberts Recreation Area and the Dipping Vat Recreation Area. The Enchantment Pass would get you into all the sites, including in the other four forests."
To a question from Browne about whether it was in statute or not, Osborn said the Federal Recreation Enhancement Act of 2004 gives the forests the opportunity to collect fees. 95 percent of the money stays on the forest, and 5 percent goes to the regional office. "But we can apply for that funding. The fee revenue can only be used at the fee sites."
Browne also asked about the reduction in numbers of cattle and whether the forest asked the grazers to do that.
"No, that is pre-emptive by the grazers." Ihle said. "The drought has a collective impact on everyone. The grazers know it and understand it. At this time, all reductions are voluntary."
District 3 Commissioner Alicia Edwards said she knows people who access the Little Walnut trails every day. "I support the fees but realize it might keep some people from using the areas."
"We are still trying to determine a way to get the Enchantment Pass to people," Osborn said. "We are thinking perhaps people can provide a number of volunteer hours. It is still in discussion. We don't want to discriminate."
Edwards said she was thinking of maybe a sliding fee, but "I like the volunteer concept. We have to recognize the families that don't have the time or money. I am in favor of fees, but it is unfortunate that we have to talk about fees for public use. I believe we have to have dump fees and stations. If we don't, it goes somewhere. How can we get involved? Our public input for our master recreation plan will start in July. I had a constituent try to sign into rec.gov without success."
Ihle said the forest has turned all the information into rec.gov, but if someone is having a hard time getting into it, "our front desk folks can walk you through it. It is live for Gomez Peak and east and west Little Walnut picnic grounds. But they are still taking reservations at the front desk."
Osborn said rec.gov will help with data collection.
"I made a reservation at a Colorado spot six months ahead," Edwards said. "It shocked me how expensive it was."
"The Gila is not just our backyard anymore," Ihle said. "People are coming from everywhere. It's an opportunity, but it's also an issue. Right now, the system is pay on site at the 'Iron Ranger' by filling in the envelope and putting money in it, but in the future it will be online."
Edwards said what's important for planning purposes within this community, "those changes are something we have to realize that this is here, and we need to be prepared."
Ihle said something had to give. "We have free services, but it's not free. That mile corridor around urban areas is really busy."
Osborn said the Catwalk will be the first to go digital. "We're super excited to be offering those services."
Ponce thanked them for keeping the commissioners and public informed.
The next article will be from Freeport-McMoRan on the mine expansion at Tyrone.