Monitoring and protecting the wilderness

Most Pagosa residents, when asked what they love about their town, will include the mountains, the outdoors or the natural surroundings in their answer.

Many Pagosans live in this area precisely because they are so drawn to the wildlands that surround it. But ours, like so much of the rest of the West, is a changing landscape. Development, natural resource use, recreation and global climate change are putting their mark on what was once untouched wilderness.

In an attempt to address the needs of the environment, while simultaneously creating community among recreationalists, a local non-profit group, Horseback Riders for a Wild San Juan Mountains, in partnership with the national and local organization, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, has created a way for outdoor enthusiasts in our region to not only recreate on public lands but also to participate in monitoring and protecting the areas in which they hike, bike, horseback ride, camp and travel.

“We believe the use of public lands is a privilege that comes with a responsibility for stewardship,” said Beverly Compton, founder and executive director of Horseback Riders for a Wild San Juan Mountains. And so, within the context of her larger non-profit efforts, Compton has created a volunteer action model originally used by the Great Old Broads for Wilderness whereby volunteer hikers, horseback riders, and even mountain bikers and ATV riders are trained to help monitor local roadless areas and document their findings.

“It’s a great system,” said Compton, “because volunteers just do what they would normally do, whether that’s hiking or horseback riding or otherwise, in an area they love. And they simply do some monitoring and documenting along the way. With the easy availability of affordable technology such as GPSs and digital cameras, the layperson can be well equipped to supply the Forest Service, and other groups interested in land management with valuable and accurate information.

“Ultimately,” said Compton, “this project will help ensure that local roadless areas do not lose the characteristics needed for wilderness designation. Once a piece of land has been marked by illegal road or trail construction, for example, the land can no longer be protected under wilderness status.”

The southern San Juan Mountain area surrounding Pagosa Springs is quite wild and untracked relative to many other locations in the southern Rockies, but the land and the ecosystem the land supports is also in significant danger from overuse, global warming and natural gas drilling.

“The southern Rockies region, including southwestern Colorado and northwestern New Mexico, has a lot of high elevation habitat which may be even more affected by climate change than other areas,” said Monique DiGiorgio, a conservation strategist for the Western Environmental Law Center, as one example of the threats facing the Southern San Juans.

“Wildlife linkages, or corridors, are important movement areas for wildlife,” said DiGiorgio, “and they will become increasingly important with global warming because animals will need to move higher in elevation to adapt to those changes. If animals are left without wild pathways through human developed areas in which to migrate, the Southern San Juans’ bionetwork could be irrevocably changed.”

According to TIME magazine’s April special environmental issue, “our growing numbers, our thirst for natural resources and, most of all, climate change … could help carry off 20 to 30 percent of all species before the end of the century.”

Compton referred to this article in her interview with The SUN, pointing out that our area is just as prone as many other places in the world to experience this kind of wild species devastation. This area has already lost too many large predator species, Compton said. The wolves and grizzlies that once inhabited these mountains can now only be found much farther north.

However, Compton is optimistic in a time of uncertainty.

“We’ve lost a lot of species, but that doesn’t mean those species can’t be reintroduced,” she said. “The Weminuche Wilderness is the biggest blank area in the southern U.S. It’s big and wild and it is worth protecting.”

DiGiorgio agreed.

“We need to protect these wildlife movement areas in all plans for land development of our area whether that planning is happening at the local, state or national level. The integration of these considerations needs to be a priority,” she said.

Horseback Riders for a Wild San Juan Mountains, for one, has made this a priority, and the organization has been recognized for its unerring commitment to wilderness. The group is sponsored by Norcross Wildlife Foundation and the Community Foundation serving southwest Colorado. Additionally, Compton is one of only 75 activists nationwide invited to the Patagonia Inc. “Tools for Grassroots Activists” conference in October. Patagonia, which is also funding Horseback Riders, elected to invest in this local project as a part of its over-arching goal of protecting and restoring the environment.

Patagonia is especially excited about funding this effort because of Horseback Riders’ unique philosophy and commitment, according to Compton.

“It is rare to see a group of recreational users of wildlands be more committed to preserving the integrity of the land than they are to protecting their own rights to use the land the way they want to,” Compton said. “But our group has made that commitment. We believe that the best way to ensure the quality of our personal experience of these lands in the future is to work to preserve the quality of these lands.”

Another rare characteristic of Horseback Riders for a Wild San Juan Mountains is their desire to embrace people from all sectors of the recreational and land use community. Compton has been working with Lenny Baker, the coordinator of a local ATV riders club to co-sponsor a “Share the Trails Summit.” At this event, local horseback riders, hikers, ATV riders and others will have a chance for dialogue. And Compton hopes to educate all types of users at the summit on the importance of protecting the ecological health of our natural landscape. A date for the summit has not yet been set, so keep your eye out in future editions of The SUN for more information about the summit.

Meanwhile though, other dates have been set, and your attendance is welcomed. On Wednesday, May 13, at 5:30 p.m. Higher Grounds Coffee, Horseback Riders for a Wild San Juan Mountains will host a public presentation of the Healthy Lands Project plan for anyone interested in learning more about getting involved as a volunteer land monitor, or any other aspect of the organization. Then, at 9 a.m. Saturday, May 30, a more comprehensive volunteer training will be held in the Turkey Springs area. The training will include a tutorial on using a camera and GPS to document observations about the land, education about legal and illegal road and trail construction, information about noxious weed monitoring, and more.

For further information about any of these events or organizations,visit or call Beverly Compton at 731-3471.

Map courtesy Beverly Compton
A map of roads in the Southern Rockies Ecoregion reveals that our area is currently one of the most untouched zones in the indicated area. Through their Healthy Lands Project, the Horseback Riders for a Wild San Juan Mountains hopes to keep it that way.

Photo courtesy Beverly Compton
Beverly Compton is the founder and executive director of Horseback Riders for a Wild San Juan Mountains. This summer, she hopes to educate horseback riders, hikers and other people who enjoy the San Juan Mountains to help monitor and protect the roadless areas in our region.