BY CHERYL HEIKOOP
I welcomed the editorial by Chris Collord in The Los Alamos Reporter (https://losalamosreporter.com/2022/07/22/support-for-improvements-to-trail-systems/) regarding the petition (of which I am a signee) to halt the proposed mountain bike projects for Pueblo Canyon, as it highlights to the general community the continuing enormous disconnect and miscommunication between various groups of trail users in Los Alamos County. The issues surrounding lack of communication became very clear to me following the presentations on the consultant’s recommendations on the proposed Pueblo Canyon bike trails. I would like to address some of the points in Mr. Collord’s contribution, while offering some background that will in part explain the motivation for the petition. Please keep in mind that these are my opinions and may or may not represent the opinions of others against the proposals.
It should be noted that the vast majority of individuals opposing the Pueblo Canyon bike trail plans are not against improvements to mountain biking opportunities or trail improvements/maintenance. The Community Services Department did its job by finding mountain bike trail consultants to provide ideas on how the mountain biking community’s needs could be met. However, it seems that current usage of Pueblo Canon was not taken into account, or not given enough serious consideration. Also, the proposals for improvements to mountain biking opportunities are currently bundled into an all-or-nothing “Pueblo Canyon”-only initiative, i.e., if any of the five proposed projects is rejected, all are rejected. The votes against this “bundle” stem primarily from the siting of the skills park, the NICA racecourse, and the 7-mile trail, all of which should have a place in the County, just not in the areas proposed.
Misconception #1: degradation of open space areas would not occur. I disagree. The proposed sites for the skills park and the NICA racecourse are located in relatively pristine areas of Pueblo Canyon. Yes, those areas experience traffic, but on already established trails. Despite numerous explanations by Katie Bruell, former director of the Pajarito Environmental Education Center (PEEC) and others, the proposed site for the skills park is used extensively by PEEC for its children’s programs (leading to displacement of current users), the area is currently undisturbed habitat and thus construction would remove essential understory vegetation, the distance to the parking area is not insignificant for parents of small children that would need to carry bikes (and possibly kids) back to the parking area, and it would be difficult for ambulances to quickly access in the event of an emergency. In addition, there are parents of young mountain bikers who do not want the skills park at this location. Regarding the NICA course, Lower Pueblo Canyon is covered extensively by cryptobiotic soils. These soils provide a “crust” that maintains moisture and nutrient levels to support the existing vegetation. It takes years for these soils to develop – thin soils that are disturbed can take over a decade to recover, the thicker soils take centuries. I appreciate that professional trail builders are skilled in minimizing the effects of erosion, but they will disturb the soil profile. And to say that all bikers would be able to stay on the proposed track in a race is somewhat debatable. I would refer readers to the Friends of the Nambe Badlands website (https://friendsofthenambebadlands.org/ ; Respect the Land) to view damage done to cryptobiotic soils in that area by mountain bikers who are not racing.
Misconception #2: disturbance of wildlife species. The County has located critical habitat areas using data from the US Fish and Wildlife Service for the Mexican Spotted Owl and Jemez Salamander, but I would argue that the initial 7-mile trail proposal would have impacted the owl and salamander core territories, as both creatures are known to occupy the Acid-Pueblo Canyon region. Given the geology of the trail, heavy machinery would have been needed to modify the trail, not hand trowels as suggested by the trail consultants. Nesting Mexican Spotted Owls require approximately 3 square miles of land for nesting and foraging, therefore the forests around Acid, Pueblo, and Walnut Canyons are all important habitats. Disturbance and major modification of these areas would discourage the return of the owls. The NICA racecourse construction and usage would displace multiple migratory and breeding bird species via habitat disturbance and destruction. Why is all of this important? In 2019 a study was published in the journal Science, one of two top-tier, internationally peer-reviewed journals that documented the loss of breeding bird populations since 1970. This information was presented a few months later in The Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s magazine, Living Bird (https://www.birds.cornell.edu/home/bring-birds-back). The results of the study showed that since 1970, North America has lost 30% of its breeding bird population, which equates to ~ 3 billion adult breeding birds. This is likely a minimum estimate as the study did not include juveniles. The primary reason for bird population decline? Habitat destruction. This is one reason why the opponents of the 7-mile trail fought so hard not to allow the trail through the Confluence of Acid and Pueblo Canyons, as originally proposed. The Confluence is the only riparian mixed conifer forest remaining in Los Alamos County. All other similar habitats in canyons to the north and south were destroyed during or following the wildfire events in 2000 and 2011. This “hotspot” with ephemeral water supports the second highest number of bird species in the County (155), including local and migratory bird populations. The most recent iteration of the route stays out of Acid Canyon by utilizing the Pueblo Bench trails and Walnut Canyon Road and recommends a dismount down the steepest part of this service road from Walnut Canyon to the floor of Pueblo Canyon. This part of the route remains an issue for me, especially during migration periods (primarily May and September).
Misconception #3: changes to cultural heritage sites. Of concern here is the proximity of the planned NICA track to the Tewa cultural sites. Currently only one short section of the Camp Hamilton trail is near the western most Tewa site, yet the proposed NICA route gets extremely close to the larger Tewa site to the east of the Camp Hamilton trail. No one is suggesting changes to the sites, however damage during races as well as potential trespassing by proposed campers is of major concern.
Unfortunately, the way in which the Pueblo Canyon bike trails plans were announced has created an “us vs. them” atmosphere, which is wholly unproductive and confrontational. Many that oppose the siting of the skills park and NICA track have suggested alternative sites in areas in both White Rock and Los Alamos that are already disturbed and away from sensitive areas. These include Loma Linda Park, the field to the west of the tennis courts at North Mesa Park, or the former BMX area south of the Overlook Convenience Center for the skills park. If you were to include land to the west of the entrance road to the Overlook Convenience Center, it is conceivable to create a NICA racecourse there using the myriad of social trails already present. In addition, talks should begin with the management of Pajarito Ski Hill, as they have expressed an interest in being involved in additional bike trail development. For the 7-mile trail, it would be better to route the descent into Pueblo Canyon along the East Fork Trail–an option that was presented to the consultants–that would require 800 feet of new trail. Construction of this section in the winter months is unlikely to affect the Mexican Spotted Owl, which tends to move to different elevations during this season. The landing of this trail is further west of the main area of the Confluence and would therefore be more protective of the principal habit. However, there is no need to create new trail segments in Lower Pueblo to complete this trail. The Tent Rocks bike trail (also very good for birding) has access points in several places, the main road through Pueblo Canyon is mainly packed sediments and becomes paved near the waste treatment plant all the way to the base of the main hill, and there is a dirt service road that runs south of the paved road but north of the Tent Rocks Tail. Many oppose the trail siting altogether because of overwhelming negative interactions with zealous mountain bikers who make no attempt to slow down around hikers or birders. It only takes a few with poor trail etiquette to cast a pall over the entire biking community. For me, as long as this trail remains a family-friendly biking route, not a flow trail, continues to follow existing (established) trails and would be routed down the East Fork trail (this would be required), I feel the County should support it outside of the current bundled trail package. Mountain biking already takes place in Pueblo Canyon along these trails. Providing proper signage that emphasizes trail etiquette and improving the trail as needed would create a long route that mountain bikers of all skill levels (especially beginners) could enjoy.
The bottom line here is that the current paradigm of depending on the County to hire consultants and present plans for biking routes is not working. I propose that the most constructive way to move forward is to work together by holding meetings with representatives of different trail user groups to discuss options such that misunderstandings of this type do not occur yet again.