BY JASON HALLADAY
I’m a native New Mexican and resident of Los Alamos for more than 40 years. I choose to live in Los Alamos largely due to its proximity to trails, both county and U.S. Forest Service (USFS) trails, and rock climbing opportunities. Sadly, I’ve watched the climate get drier and hotter here and see no end to this warming during my lifetime. While I do what I can to limit my impact on the climate, I realize it’s inevitable the climate will continue to warm and dry. I have adapted my actions and behaviors to address the warming climate as best I can. I’d like to see local, state and federal actions and policies adapt as well. A glaring example of this need for adaptation is the recent blanket closure of Los Alamos county trails and open spaces due to fire concerns. It is my opinion that blanket closures are archaic, untenable and unrealistic going forward.
In a recent statement, LAFD Chief Troy Hughes said “As I look at the ownership map of Los Alamos, the only thing that we have control over are the ones that are interior to the community of Los Alamos or right around the core of the County. Anything that you see on the mountainsides is all either National Forest-owned or LANL-owned. All the stuff down in White Rock is LANL trails primarily and we don’t have much.” While it is true much of the land and trails on the perimeter of Los Alamos County is USFS-owned, Hughes doesn’t appear to recognize the White Rock Canyon Rim, Red Dot and Blue Dot trails are Los Alamos County trails and, in my opinion, do not need to be closed. Closing these trails, and the area in which they lie, also closes a number of popular rock climbing areas that do not need to be closed. Furthermore, trails within the town of Los Alamos, where a trail user is clearly visible from paved roads and/or houses at most points, do not need to be closed since emergency egress from these trails is as practical as one evacuating a house. If the fire threat is so dire these trails cannot be used then the people in the houses near the trail are also in danger.
In another recent statement, Chief Hughes said, “How could I explain my rationale for dropping the Stage 3 restrictions when Santa Fe National Forest, Cibola National Forest, Carson National Forest, and LANL all retained the Stage 3 restrictions. My only answer would be that I thought the convenience of citizens was more important than the safety of the community as a whole, despite the fire behavior science provided to me by professional fire behavior analysts.” This statement shows Hughes does not fully appreciate the value and need of access to trails and open space by referring to it as “convenience”. Access to trails and open space is not simply about “convenience” but, rather, mental and physical health as well as happiness—much needed factors of life especially after the past couple of years of Covid-induced isolation. It’s also an unequal comparison between national forest lands and county lands. County lands have residents living amongst its boundaries where, if an evacuation would be necessary, it seems to make little difference if a person is in their home or on a trail a relatively short distance from their home or paved road.
It is my opinion that a more nuanced approach to restrictions and closures must be considered and implemented. Some suggestions are to continue to allow access to lower-fire-risk areas like White Rock area trails where vegetation is more sparse, allow access to trails in the mornings and evenings (much like the “hoot owl” rule under USFS Stage II fire restrictions), allow access on non-red flag fire condition days and allow access to “interior” trails of the county where users are only minutes away from a paved road for emergency egress. I’m certain there are other viable options as well. For example, Bandelier National Monument recently went from full closure of all trails to opening up a number of trails close to the visitor center while keeping the backcountry trails closed. This type of sensible and practical approach is one I’d like to see Los Alamos County consider and adopt. I’d also like to point out that New Mexico Senator Martin Heinrich has recently voiced a similar opinion, via Twitter, stating, “…blanket closures of our public lands are not the answer. We need a nuanced approach that distinguishes between hiking on a trail versus lighting a campfire. We can balance safety & access with a little common sense.”