Laura McCarthy stood in the pine forest of the Río Chama Basin, near the Colorado–New Mexico state line. She was on skis, and it was snowing hard. There in the high alpine, 175 miles north of Albuquerque, McCarthy, former associate director of the New Mexico chapter of the Nature Conservancy and now the first woman to be state forester for New Mexico, smiled, knowing what the abundance of snow in this healthy basin meant. Come spring, the snowmelt would flow through a tunnel under the Continental Divide to the Río Chama and then to Heron and El Vado Lakes, where it would be stored and distributed to the Río Grande. The forest itself would be the water tower for a burgeoning outdoor recreation economy, not to mention a water source for a majority of the state’s population.
In New Mexico, we know that water is life. We can’t afford to take it for granted. The 78 signatories of the Nature Conservancy’s Río Grande Water Fund understand this. They are a mix of public and private organizations—the University of New Mexico, Taos Ski Valley, Bosque Brewing, and New Mexico Game and Fish—who have committed to the project’s goals: to restore 600,000 acres of forested watershed through thinning and controlled burns in order to reduce the risk of catastrophic fire; to secure clean water for wildlife and one million New Mexicans; to create jobs; and to teach young people the connection between forest health and water. It’s an ambitious plan.
“We feel the pressure,” says McCarthy. “Some people told us it wasn’t possible because the scale was too big, but we didn’t feel that we had a choice. We have to go big. Out of the pressure came innovation.”
By the end of 2018, the Nature Conservancy, which is celebrating 40 years in New Mexico this year, had restored 108,000 acres of forest through the fund, creating some 235 forestry jobs and contributing up to $36 million in economic output.
This month’s issue is all about New Mexico’s range of outdoor recreation. Did you know that Questa, a former mining town, is rebuilding itself as an outdoors hub? Or that the northeast corner of the state has some of the best bird-watching in the country? And that the enthralling Valles Caldera is home to one of the most coveted elk hunts in the world? Nowhere else has the cultural and natural beauty of this state.
Our incredible public lands aren’t guaranteed. They demand stewardship. In the event of catastrophic fire, our tourism, recreation, and water resources will all suffer. The Río Grande Water Fund is designed to engage us all in managing where our water comes from—healthy forests—to ensure there is enough for everyone. It’s up to us to do the rest.