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Conversations About Fly Fishing and the Outdoor Life

George Rael Jr. – A Hunter and His Family Surviving on Public Land

George's Hunting Photos & Videos 969As a very general rule, New Mexicans are either fans of the Dallas Cowboys or the Denver Broncos. Cowboy faithful are from the lower elevations, the eastern and southern parts of the state, a somewhat bumpier version of west Texas. In the north, where the wind blows just as hard, but across snow and sagebrush and treeless peaks, people root for Denver. One would think that a man like George Rael, from the spectacular town of Questa about 30 miles from the Colorado border, would bleed in Bronco blue and orange. And one would be wrong.

“If it didn’t have something to do with the outdoors, I wasn’t interested,” Rael says. “I never cared about sports.”

NM pics 068George Rael has harvested a bull elk from public lands for fifteen consecutive years. Growing up in the southern Rockies, he has supped on cutthroat trout, deer and elk for as long as he can remember. Like a mountain lion, the wild meat diet was never a matter of choice. One day he realized that he was so inextricable from his life in the woods, that he might as well make a career out of it. Now, four years later, his intimate and hard-won knowledge of his home country – the Columbine Hondo Wilderness Study Area, the Latir and Wheeler Peak Wilderness Areas, and the Valle Vidal Unit of the Carson National Forest – provides him with a lifestyle that only a person without a soul would not covet.

As owner of George’s Premier Hunting Services, Rael makes half of his annual income putting hunters (preferably youngsters) on elk and mule deer. In the off season, Rael operates his excavation business (he worked on Questa’s new fish habitat restoration project) and also restores cabins, the earnings from which combine with his wife Lori’s job at Ace Hardware to allow for a measure of household security. As a bonus, George collects antler sheds every spring, from which he fashions lamps and chandeliers for sale to luxury home owners  throughout New Mexico and beyond.

“Even though he worked real hard, my dad couldn’t afford to send his kids to college. I want my children to have that opportunity if that’s what they want.”

Rael has three hijos, sons George III. Luke, and daughter Alexia. While all three have jumped feet first into the outdoor life, George III. already plays an important role in his father’s guiding business. On a recent trip, while George Sr. tended to a badly injured horse in the field, George III, 11 years old at the time – confidently guided their clients out of the wilderness to the trailhead, all in the dark of night.

FullSizeRenderIt seems safe to assume, therefore, that by the time George Rael’s children decide to go to college or not, they might each have learned the trade from their dad. At the very least, they will have learned critical skills from their adventures in the northern New Mexico high country. Rael is convinced one can’t make it in a village like Questa without adapting to the land. It’s true that hunting and fishing provide excellent real life training; he loves the intelligence of mule deer, how a hunter has to study a single animal for weeks if he’s to stand a chance.

He hunts with horses, because they take him deep into the woods, and quietly. The quiet allows Rael to hear what’s going on around him, to feel the land’s rhythms and moods. Quiet becomes patience. Patience becomes trout and big bulls, or any number of gifts he or his children might wrest from the world they live in. On top of all that, one can’t overlook the contribution patience can make in terms of food on the table, be it meat, cash, or both.

To George Rael’s way of thinking, hunting and fishing also instill values, not just the importance of listening to the land but of taking care of it, which Rael agrees is a tall order in these often tumultuous times. Plenty has changed since his childhood. Off highway vehicles (OHVs) have become the hunting method of choice, often to the extreme detriment of elk wallows and wet meadows. Game corridors have shifted in response to human housing expansion and land use patterns. In the Columbine Hondo Wilderness Area, for example, elk hunting is less than optimal due to the increase in hikers that Rael has seen.

The fact that human use continues to increase is why George Rael believes that designated wilderness areas play an important role in the sound management of public lands. Roads and OHV trails are getting wider and are penetrating deeper into quality wildlife habitat. Truck hunting and poaching are having a bigger impact on game numbers. Reasonably limiting motorized access – including closing roads in critical habitat – simply results in better hunting, which provides meat for rural families on tight budgets.

To repeat, George Rael believes in reasonable measures, so that everyone can enjoy the many gifts public lands can and should provide. Since their earliest days on two feet, he has taught his kids to be thankful for nature’s bounty, to never take it for granted.


“If they kill anything, anything, a fish or a frog or a bird with a BB gun,” Rael says, “they’re going to clean it and eat it.”

“This beautiful wilderness is my back yard, and I am dedicated to providing successful, enjoyable hunting trips and to maintaining high ethical standards and respect for the land and animals we hunt.” Words to live by indeed.

Get out with George this year for a true wilderness hunting experience. George Rael Jr. Premier-Outfitters.com (575)779-4907




Public Lands Transfer: A Threat to Our Heritage by: Toner Mitchell (From Southwest Fly Fishing Magazine)

IMG_0466One of the many things that make America great is the enormous amount of land kept in the public trust. Public land – forests, grassland, desert, national parks and monuments, historic and wildlife preserves – comprises approximately 40% of our nation’s land mass. We fishermen owe a debt of gratitude to the likes of Theodore Roosevelt and Gifford Pinchot for envisioning our long-term interest in conserving our natural resources. We owe them for asserting that an abundant and healthy commons – sustainable grass, saw timber, minerals, clean water supplies, wildlife, and fish – is fundamental to our strength as a nation.

Unfortunately, in legislatures throughout the West, bills are being introduced that would transfer America’s public lands to the states. In 2012, Utah passed legislation that gave the United States until December 31, 2014 to surrender 31 million acres of largely National Forest and BLM lands. Perhaps in recognition of its responsibility to the nation as a whole over a minority of people from one state (65% of Utahns believe public lands belong to everyone in the country), the U.S. has yet to hand over the goods. This development has not deterred legislatures in Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Montana, Idaho, Colorado, Wyoming, Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico from introducing transfer bills of their own, in spite of polls showing that 71% of western voters want their public lands to remain public.

This contravention of public will is but one reason that land transfer is a bad idea. Another is expense. An independent study of Utah’s transfer project determined that the state might indeed manage public lands profitably, but only if it were able to collect a higher percentage of oil and gas royalties than the feds currently do, AND if petroleum prices remain at peak levels. Given the certainty of fluctuating oil prices, Utah would need to auction off land to make up for a shortfall. A catastrophic wildfire might cause Utah to raise taxes to comply with its balanced budget mandate.

To transfer advocates, the imperfections of the BLM and Forest Service are the prime complaint, one that should be taken seriously to a point. Many seeking land transfer are of a philosophical lineage that hates the very concept of public land (i.e. Sagebrush Rebels of the 70s and 80s), choking agency funding and obstructing progressive reforms for decades. So while agency failures may have been a problem, there have been many in power – in Capitol Hill, statehouses, and county commissions – to whom these failures have also been an objective.

Without their traditional whipping boys, who will states blame when they must live within the budgets they have imposed on the Forest Service and BLM? More terrifying, how will fishing make out when short-term revenue generation trumps the sustainable economies provided by fishing and other pastimes?

Your favorite stream might get a gas well drilled beside it. You can live with that. Until the next well gets installed, and your favorite campground closes for lack of maintenance funds, then another campground and a stretch of stream. More anglers crowd into smaller spaces until they start losing interest. That includes anglers from out of state, anglers who don’t book flights, stay in hotels, and buy licenses, whom you never thought you’d miss until your guide buddy leaves town in search of gainful work, along with kids and his wife whose cafe bellied up. Out of staters used to like visiting your state; they dreamed of buying real estate, wanted to open offices because their workforces would love the clean lifestyle.

Trampas Lakes, Carson National Forest, New Mexico

Trampas Lakes, Carson National Forest, New Mexico

Less competition on your pet stream is certainly not a bad thing, but if the outdoor pursuits become less of a priority – likely, given a state’s need to generate quick revenue at the expense of more stable recreation economies – the quality of your experience will decline.

The U.S. outdoor recreation economy generates approximately 650 billion dollars annually in consumer spending, of which about 98 billion is due to fishing. That’s 6.1 million jobs, 80 billion dollars in federal, state, and local taxes. This economy, our blissful participation in it while fishing a secret public lunker hole would be put at serious risk if transfer zealots get their way.

In this case, it’s far easier to not make a mess than to clean it up afterwards. Contact Trout Unlimited, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, National Wildlife Federation, Backcountry Hunters and Anglers, or Center for Western Priorities for more information on this critical issue. If not, contact your state legislators and warn them to keep their hands off your public lands.

The Lord Answers Every Prayer

IMG_0697I’ve been thinking about access almost constantly these days, what it means and doesn’t mean, what we can and, more important, should do about it. I really don’t want to think about it anymore, because from every perspective it sucks.

I came to this conclusion while rising to the top of Kachina Peak at Taos Ski Valley. I’d skied the peak many times over the previous 35 years, a proud achievement for the simple fact that each adventure required an arduous hike from 11,900 feet to Kachina’s 12,480 foot summit. Recently, a hedge fund magnate purchased the ski area and built the chairlift up the face of the peak. As promised, the lift gave me the thrill of Kachina without the cost in lungs and legs, and the time to ruminate over access.

In recent months, I had joined the battle to prevent certain New Mexico legislators from wresting control of federal public lands for subsequent sale, barter or gift at the state’s discretion. A significant aspect of their argument was that, thanks to environmentalists and compliant government managers, too much country is locked up as wilderness and thus inaccessible to the person on the street who might want to enjoy the land from the comfort of a vehicle.

The legislature also debated and passed a stream access bill making it illegal for anglers to fish streams crossing private property. Since the 1940s, New Mexicans had generally assumed that such access was already illegal. One notable exception was a state legislator who didn’t like that the stream he fished as a boy now flowed through properties owned by outsiders who’d stopped allowing locals to fish.

IMG_0196_2In 2014, at the behest of this legislator, the Attorney General issued an opinion that the streambed was as public as the water that flowed over it. Expert legal opinions alternatively supported and discredited the opinion. Practical and administrative quandaries arose too, as well as broader questions on habitat impacts from increased fishing pressure on New Mexico’s rivers, which, if defined relative to streams in most states, are mostly creeks.

IMG_1005Many believe that the access legislation is unlikely to solve anything, and I tend to agree. Since the AG’s opinion was first filed, the road to legislation has been so strewn with righteous invective and misinformation that, on the broader subject of stream access, far more heat has been shed than light.

Similar to politicians quoting Thomas Jefferson, we conservationists like to burnish our street cred, legitimately or not, by invoking Leopold or Teddy Roosevelt. The New Mexico Land Commissioner and his son actually employed this tactic to justify the federal-to-state land grab, in spite of it being a clear contradiction of what Roosevelt would have supported. I’ve played the Conservation Hero card myself a couple times. Heck, I’m doing it again right now.

"Lincoln once said, 'Repeat the words of great men to appear great yourself.'"

“Lincoln once said, ‘Repeat the words of great men to appear great yourself.'” – Theodore Roosevelt

As we know, Roosevelt and his public lands ideas came to our rescue just in time. Thanks to the Erie Canal, Lewis and Clark’s journey, and coast to coast railroads, paths were cleared and then followed to the western horizons. Mountains were stripped of their logs and ore, and various homestead decrees populated the interior with farmers, ranchers, and land barons. Mix in a civil war and Native American genocide, and one would conclude, as Roosevelt might have, that our innocence was officially lost.

Of the world’s 1.75 billion people at the time of T.R’s presidency, the United States was home to around 92 million. He didn’t live to see the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression or the Second World War, didn’t see dams choke the Columbia River or the consequent free fall of its wild salmon races. Though alive for the invention of the automobile, he didn’t witness the ascendance of cars and petroleum to the almost religious plane they occupy today.

By Aldo Leopold’s death in 1948, the global population had grown to 2.5 billion, of which about 147 million were Americans. The baby boom had just begun and would last another 14 or so years, a period during which GDP sky rocketed, and huge swaths of natural earth became pavement, houses, and lawns. In this period Courtney White refers to as “the Great Fiesta”, dams went up as fast as forests were cut down.

Since 1960, we’ve seen important responses to the environmental impacts of our expansion – the Wilderness and Endangered Species Acts, the Clean Water and Air Acts, and Superfund. Aldo Leopold might agree that we are better for these initiatives. Were he alive to witness our warming climate, however, he might also agree that they were but fingers in an increasingly porous dyke.

Requisite Aldo Leopold picture.

Requisite Aldo Leopold picture.

The U.S. is currently home to 350 million of the world’s 7 billion souls. Human access, in other words, is nigh complete, and though this access tilts towards wealth and privilege, we must remember that, in America at least, Roosevelt gave us all a stake. Remember also that with our stake comes the responsibility for what it has wrought.

To an audience of land management professionals, a couple friends of mine recently described a practice employed by firewood collectors who, driving all terrain machines, harvest their way into heretofore roadless sanctuaries, from which they poach wildlife and wood. This practice is similar to settlement patterns documented in rainforest regions; wounds make their way deeper into the country and over time become accepted as normal parts of the landscape. Instead of healing they become scars.

IMG_0572Knowing that legal land uses leave scars as well, (backpack to a high elevation lake in New Mexico, and find me a blade of grass growing at a campsite) we find ourselves in a position where we must choose well if the resources we seek to access – terrain, animals, fish, solitude – are to remain in the states we desire. There’s the rub though, the desired state differing from person to person, and the fact that sacrifices will be required no matter what.

It’s time to be honest with ourselves about this.

fatmercaCan’t hike your favorite mountain like you used to before the babies and the belly slowed you down? Well, the mountain was younger once too. It can afford your ATV now or elk, but not both. It is still accessible though. Hit the gym, do some cardio, understand that part of the reason you loved that hill so much was that it sometimes played hard to get. Hire a horse outfit if it’s too much trouble. Think about spending a few bucks.

You want to fish some private land? Knock on the door, keep coming back until you’ve got an offer they can’t refuse, perhaps a trade. Repair some fence, clear some brush, collaborate on a habitat project, or come out at midnight and help irrigate. Find out if a fly shop has a lease on the property you want to fish. Think about spending a few bucks.


This could be yours.

Though blessed with some of the world’s most resilient trout habitat, Argentina closes much of its best water for half the year. Creeks identified as spawning havens are closed to fishing of any kind, always and forever. Similar, though less draconian, restrictions have sprung up across America. Montana’s Smith River and New Mexico’s Valle Vidal come to mind as examples of a price in access being placed on premium quality resources.

Taking it a step further, might it be true that there are places where the best access might be no access at all? The Nature Conservancy owns a stretch of California’s McCloud River, where no use of any kind is permitted (no trespass is informally but strictly enforced by no clear trails and plenty of poison oak). Might we at least contemplate such restrictions if certain critical or vibrant ecosystems would benefit, if we truly value those ecosystems for themselves?

Seriously, with things like fracking or the land theft risk going on, how prepared are we to protect the land, even, as the case may be, from ourselves? A very tough call indeed, one I would love to see tackled by Roosevelt and Leopold as their legacy enters the 21st century. But since that’s impossible I hope to see this question addressed, and much better than it has been, by all who claim to follow in their footsteps.


"Access?Be nice if we could find a few more places without them two-legged things everywhere!"

“Access?Be nice if we could find a few more places without them two-legged things everywhere!”



Public Lands Transfer in New Mexico – Wolf at the Door

CattleRangeThe room was packed, wall-to-wall cowboy hats and New Mexico’s native tongue – the blend of Spanish and English I refer to as “Chinglés.” These folks are almost unanimously against the designation of new wilderness, part of why I attended this meeting of the Northern New Mexico Stockman’s Association. In hard to reach, high altitude locations, forage and water abound in most years, and thanks to generations of government-funded predator control, few threats exist. I wanted to learn more about why someone might take exception to that.

We watched a film, “Losing our Land,” about New Mexican ranchers’ struggles against Mexican wolves, profiteering environmentalists and the government. Though I knew it wouldn’t, that it couldn’t (the film was produced by Glen Beck after all), I wanted the story to turn over the next stone, to provide some context behind the challenges of rural living. A rancher was pictured crying. His tears and pain were palpable.

Ranchers fear that their way of life is as threatened as the numerous species – the meadow jumping mouse, prairie chicken, cutthroat trout – they have driven to the brink of nonexistence. Notwithstanding the irony in this, their desire for relief must be insuperable. If it’s not the greenies crawling up their asses, it’s the price of fuel and feed, interest rates, tuitions, government cutbacks, aging equipment and bodies, rain that refuses to fall, and wolves.

Fortunately, help is on the way. State Representative Yvette Herrell and Senator Ron Griggs intend to pass legislation enabling New Mexico to assume ownership of America’s public lands. By Herrell’s own admission, this would be a step towards privatizing those lands.

Herrell and Griggs believe the state will manage public land better than the U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management. It’s a bold claim, complete conjecture if one relies on substantiating evidence. Maybe the logic is that the state is too benign to commit the type of overreach characteristic of the feds, that the state treats cattlegrowers better than the scoundrels from back east with their below cost grazing fees.

Let’s look at those fees. Currently on public land, a rancher pays $1.35 per AUM (one month of public grass for a cow and calf pair). Compare that to what my family pays for just one night at a Forest Service campground. Sixteen dollars, the equivalent of one month’s foraging for 22 animals, or two pairs of cows through an entire grazing season.

Put in human terms, one night of camping on public land costs less than a nickel for a cow and her calf. All in. Unlike my family, cattle don’t gas up in the nearby town and buy fishing gear and licenses, beer and marshmallows. They essentially chupa the public udder for free.

Amazingly, to many at the stockman’s meeting, this is still a raw deal. In fairness, ranchers acting in good faith often encounter agency resistance when trying to access forage, improve efficiency, or reduce red tape. The smart approach might be to push for better agency funding while engaging more diligently in the planning process. Incremental progress is certainly less risky than betting the farm on a fantasy.

And what a fantasy it is. As Herrell and Griggs picture it, as it “manages” its land, the state won’t succumb to environmentalist crap. Cows once imprisoned will be freed unto a world of grassy lushness where they will wallow in cool creeks, jackhammer the banks, and gush torrents of green slurry unto the water. Wolves and elk, ever insatiable, will be destroyed as suits the cow. Roads, fences, and watering troughs will be built and maintained.

Forests will be thinned heavily, logs sold to a market that always needs them, and counties will be reimbursed their opportunity costs. In the unlikely event of wildfire, the state will deploy adequate resources to subdue it, along with the cheatgrass and knapweed that erupt in its wake. The state will also reimburse the rancher for impacts to stock from fires and other disasters. Verily, the rancher will thus prosper.

Meanwhile, back on earth, the public lands cowboy would be the first log on the fire of public lands transfer. The State of New Mexico is a perennial national leader in child poverty, inadequate education, and other metrics reflecting on its “management” skills. I’m incapable of imagining that ranchers would be immune to whatever lies at the root of all this, or why they don’t recognize they’re being played.

In these times when almost every other land use bests the economic output of ranching, will the state float the ranchers like the feds have since the Taylor Grazing Act? I’ve seen private land grazing fees as high as 11.50 per AUM, probably because that’s the true cost of grazing. I don’t think the average rancher could afford to pay anywhere close to that, or that the state would pick up a lot of slack.

Do we know which lands will be sold when the inevitable day arrives (Hint: choice parcels will have grass, nice views, streams, lakes of oil beneath, and it will probably be expensive)? Would the ranchers be able to buy? To be clear, I’m talking about the people who raise cattle for a living, not the tycoons who buy land and put cattle on it to duck taxes.

So yeah, the ranchers are screwed. The wolves are at the door sure enough, but it’s getting clearer every day that they walk on two legs.





Public Lands Transfer in New Mexico – Our Place in the World

Christmas Evening, Santa Fe lights, from Santa Fe National Forest

Christmas Evening, 2014. Santa Fe lights, from Santa Fe National Forest

Christmas and I do not get along. In America at least, I hate how the season seems to come at such a high cost in nature and humanity so that we in the so-called first world can buy our special someones the latest iPhone. I hate mountains being chewed off for coal we waste lighting trees and houses through millions of hours of sleep, coal that could be used better by filling a few more stockings. I hate that Christmas seems at once cause and penance for a materialist culture that consumes so much of our work, thoughts, and health. Christmas cheer is too often false. Like a bellyful of eggnog, it leaves me groggy and bloated.

Contrary to what Bill O’Reilly might think, the band of grinches to which I belong is a miniscule one. Most people I know love Christmas, and I understand why. They like being surrounded by loved ones, the giving and receiving of gifts. My wife enjoys singing, making presents by hand, scribbling to-do lists, even baking cookies for Santa. I admire that she is so heartset on keeping favorite traditions alive; it doesn’t matter what we eat for Christmas supper, but if lox and bagels aren’t for breakfast, the Son of God may as well not have been born.

Many of my friends love Jesus Christ, and people of other faiths feel similar stirrings that are equally profound. Theory has it that so many spiritual traditions celebrating contemporaneously may have had something to do with pagans, whose focus on the winter solstice had been powered by eons of wondering about their places in the cosmos. Beat them or join them, as the case may have been. Although I’m no longer religious myself – I was once a hardcore Catholic – at least this much seems clear: a majority of people ever to have lived have recognized a time in early winter when quests for meaning feel natural and good.

It’s taken me forever to realize that I do a lot better by not expecting Christmas lovers to see things my way. I’ve wished they would, at least insofar as withholding their scorn at my scrooginess, but it simply seems easier for me to try and take joy in theirs. More than that, at a time most people consider holy, it seems mandatory for a-holes like me to join in the reflection on how the universe shapes our lives.

John Hasted, wonderful man, wetting a line.

John Hasted, wonderful man, wetting a line.

In recent years, this has entailed a solo Christmas walk in the woods. This year my walk was painfully necessary, because on Christmas Eve morning, a friend passed away unexpectedly. I’d known him just a few years, but long enough to understand that I’d always welcome seeing him or, much better, fishing with him whenever the stars so aligned. He made me laugh a lot, and through our conversations, we came to realize that in the quite possible event that we were both deemed officially insane, we would feel blessed for each other’s company. As I walked the trail that late Christmas afternoon, I was consoled by that thought and felt him with me yet.

I grooved with that silver lining for as long as I could, but I was unable to ignore the unfairness of his sudden death, for death was one of the very last things one could associate with such a jolly and living soul. In this season of meaning, what meaning could possibly exist if such a treasure could be taken from us? What god but a cruel one would allow us to be so needlessly injured?

During my Christmas walk, in addition to mourning John, I tasked myself with confronting my feelings about the day. I required myself to perform this practice on public land, somewhat in response to the greedy teanderthals trying in several western states to steal Americans’ land. Otherwise, this just seemed a natural pairing to me, placing oneself in the cosmos, doing the same on solid ground.

America’s public lands are literally our place in the world (or universe, if you prefer), places that are OURS, as in, they belong to us. As the sunlight drained from the sky, I realized that our land not only gives space and place to me and my countrymen, but to every human being on earth. Sure, a citizen from India can’t vote here or expect a Senator’s attention to an email, but there is nothing barring that person from standing in an American national forest if she abides by our laws.

What an incredible gift! I wonder if the architects of this nation’s public lands experiment ever considered that they would actually change the global human condition for all time, that every person born would eventually have at least 643 million acres of planet surface to go and just be, that my friend, though not with us anymore, retains a stake in so much water, trees, grass, and dirt. It’s a comfort to look at the mountains near my home and know they remain his. John Hasted lives.

Big John, fisher of public lands, during his Take a Heathen Fishing Day.

Big John, fisher of public lands, during his Take a Heathen Fishing Day.




Public Lands Transfer in New Mexico – Frustration All Around

Sad Froggy Cowboy By: Gus

Sad Froggy Cowboy By: Gus

“We’re going to start playing by our own rules, because theirs don’t work, and they don’t know how to follow them.”

So says Yvette Herrell, state representative from Alamogordo, New Mexico, in defense of her radical fringe movement to privatize public lands via transferring them to the states. Even in written form, for all their muscle and victorious tone, these words scarcely veil Herrell’s frustration at the deplorable imperfection of the federal government and its management of the citizens’ estate. I have a lot of empathy for people who are frustrated. There is sincerity in their anguish, a belief that they’ve been betrayed in spite of their most heroic efforts. They want everything to work out for the best. Shouldn’t that be enough?

It should, but then again, who would believe such nonsense? Wanting everything to work out doesn’t mean squat. Actually working to make it happen does, which is why, when it comes to public land use and management, there is plenty of blame to go around for the current state of affairs.

A case in point is a stream restoration project I’ve been involved with in one way or another for several years. The creek is located on the Carson National Forest, the project entailing various treatments to reverse the innocent and yet significant ecological devastation from about a century of mining, logging, grazing, and overharvest of fish and wildlife.

Despondent Amphibian Rancher By: Ethan

Despondent Amphibian Rancher By: Ethan

There have been challenges to be sure, not the least of which being the magnitude of the destruction being addressed. In the heyday, our project area was essentially shaved to the nub and then given an enema, and the habitat lost to erosion is heartbreaking still. Add the federal NEPA and permitting process, which has been its bureaucratic headache self, sometimes to the point of seeming like the Forest Service has no interest in the project being successful. Finally, as phases of the project have been completed – yielding almost immediate positive results in sediment reduction and stream channel function – a grazing leaseholder has repeatedly allowed his stock to stomp through treatment areas and reverse all the gains.

It’s appropriate here to address Herrell’s comment that the government’s rules don’t work and that it doesn’t know how to follow them. In the case described above, it’s really impossible to know if the government rules work or not, precisely because A) the rules are not clear, and B) even if they were, cattlegrowers don’t seem to know how to follow them any better than the government does.

Which makes the other part of Herrell’s statement – that government haters are going to start playing by their own rules – beg for closer examination as well. The New Mexican landscape, though of breathtaking beauty, bears the deepening scars of laissez faire management in the past and today. The degraded condition of our land is, at a minimum, plausible evidence that playing by their own rules is all that Herrell and her ilk have ever done. If it were not, we might talk seriously about raising user fees without unfairly burdening grazers, miners, loggers, hunters and anglers, and yes, hikers, bikers and birdwatchers. But we never talk seriously; methinks there’s an age-old reason for it.

To end on an up note, it makes me proud that the Forest Service, the grazing leaseholder, and the stream restorers have persevered through their mistakes and have learned how to make the stream project a broader success. The leaseholder has committed to resting pastures near stream treatments, and the restoration crews and Forest Service are trying to fence in pastures and establish upland water troughs for cattle. Even private landowners have contributed financial resources in keeping with their own deep stewardship values. Everyone tries. Everyone wins.

Beginning as an effort to mitigate erosion and stream damage, the project’s emphasis has expanded to include range health and cutthroat trout recovery. Fattening cows and making fishermen and elk happier, it’s called multiple use.

Look for other public lands collaboration success stories in future posts.

Public Lands Transfer in New Mexico – “All we want is to privatize it.”

Evil Clown By: Gus

Evil Clown By: Gus

The American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) is a self-described nonpartisan think tank that promotes conservative points of view in service to corporations and their fellow United States citizens. According to the group’s website, ALEC still believes in the existence of something called “the free market” and favors federalism, although, if ever a state government became a bit too uppity, ALEC would no doubt exercise its considerable influence to put a stop to such monkey business. It has been averred that ALEC generates and lobbies for model bills in state legislatures and helps fund the campaigns of its loyalists. The organization hasn’t tried terribly hard to dispute any of this.

If I were a corporation, I would definitely see the value in a $7,000.00 to $25,000.00 ALEC membership (though Google, citing ALEC’s dishonesty on climate change, recently severed ties). It would be in my interest to shoulder that so as to reduce others such as employee pay, regulatory compliance and taxes. Although it is unpalatable to many, the fact that politicians can be bought and sold would have tremendous appeal to me if there were a corporate-friendly bill I needed passed.

Thanks to an ALEC-fomented anti-government campaign, a vocal fringe is demanding that the ownership of federal lands – mainly Forest Service, BLM, and Fish and Wildlife properties – be surrendered to the states. The feds are out of touch with local needs and values, the rhetoric goes, and states are well able to manage these lands better for environmental and economic health. Proponents of this belief are unfortunately hamstrung by a colossal lack of credible supporting data, if one doesn’t count recent studies conducted in Utah, Idaho, and Nevada. Evaluating a host of possible scenarios, these studies showed that states might indeed profit from a windfall of federal lands, assuming the following:

  • Even in states with strong tourist industries, drilling, mining, and logging were sharply increased.
  • Oil and gas prices were high, and remained so.
  • Oil and gas companies were willing to pay higher royalty rates, and/or the federal government relinquished its share of royalties so that states would receive 100% of payments.
  • States reduced land holdings by selling land to private or corporate entities.
  • State taxes were raised anyway.
  • In an ever hotter and drier climate, large forest fires magically stopped happening, and, if not, fire fighting crews and equipment fell from the sky.

Obviously, land transfer would require broad acceptance, if not significant suspension of disbelief, among the citizenry of a state interested in participating in the experiment. Petroleum prices, for example, are currently falling due to high supplies, a condition which might be exacerbated by more production. And as I look outside at a recent dusting of snow being gobbled up by yet another 50 degree December day, the thought of a fire free summer is almost laughable.

No matter, Yvette Herrell, a New Mexico state representative from Alamogordo, intends to introduce a land transfer bill in the 2015 legislature. Herrell was awarded ALEC’s 2014 State Chair of the Year honor and appears confident that enough of her fellow legislators will be morally or intellectually corrupt enough to vote for her bill. One of her arguments for state control of Americans’ lands is that a third of New Mexico’s budget comes from the federal government. She also cites the success of Texas resulting from its faith in the free market and from limited federal involvement in its economic affairs.

These arguments are best viewed from a context-free perspective, one that ignores the fact that New Mexico and other western states are not given, but actually earn the bulk of their government booty from economic activities taking place on federal lands. That much of this activity is subsidized by the American taxpayer should be factored into the cost/benefit analysis of federal ownership, but it rarely is by modern day sagebrush rebels like Yvette Herrell.

It’s also worth noting that in many key aspects, Texas is an apple and New Mexico is an orange, which, as far as public and not public land is concerned, is expressed in the symbiotic relationship between the two states. Texas, possessing almost no public land, relies heavily on its neighbor to the west for outdoor recreation. Blessed with an abundance of beautiful and yet multi-use public lands, New Mexico is grateful for the economic boost out of state visitors (including huge numbers of Texans) provides. In 2011, tourism generated 7.8 billion dollars in revenue for the Land of Enchantment, as well as 1.2 billion in taxes, of which 565 million went to state and local governments. Tourism-related jobs numbered around 86,000, many in rural locations.

I’ll grant that states should always seek to develop other economies besides tourism, but the fact that Yvette Herrell is willing to bet New Mexico’s second biggest industry on her pipedream (pun intended) suggests a couple possibilities. Either she believes a car with its engine removed can still get you from place to place, or she doesn’t care about tourism. Evidence for the first is everywhere. What about those jobs in the hinterlands? Is there enough grass, fracking water, and marketable logs to sustain small town cafes, auto shops, hunting outfitters and lodging establishments into the indefinite future?

The second possibility is indicated by a smug statement Herrell made at a recent ALEC policy summit. A real estate professional, she dismissed the notion that she might stand to gain personally if federal lands were transferred to states and subsequently went on the block.

“I buy real estate contracts, and now I’ve been accused of apparently wanting to buy a national forest,” she said. Well, even though I truly believe that public land is the birthright of every American, if there is a sell off and I’m Yvette Herrell, I might hope to play some inside baseball.

But no, she’s a better person than I. “All we want is to privatize it,” she said. OK, I feel better now.

Truchacabra’s History of Fly Fishing in America, Part 14 – Is Fly Fishing History?


I forget where I first read that fly fishers are optimists by nature. Of course I didn’t need to read it anywhere, having on many occasions been the beneficiary of one more cast, a pinch more of split shot, or a fly change that caused a previously dead run to erupt with the wrath of a lunker trout. How many of us have arrived at a blown out stream where the blizzard hatch ended yesterday and earned a surprise fish instead of taking a skunk? Ask a good steelheader why he perseveres through a days-long losing streak. He’ll tell you his next swing will get a grab.

Columbine Hondo, Carson National Forest, New Mexico

Columbine Hondo, Carson National Forest, New Mexico

Even in 2014, one might take comfort in the notion that fly fishing has faced existential threats and come out on top many times since the days of Theodore Gordon and Charles F. Orvis. Rivers and lakes, we optimists might argue, possess obvious sacred value embodied in the mountains that hold them and in the trout that swim their waters. Not everything, trout streams especially, has a price. I first learned this in the 1970’s, when talk of damming the Yellowstone led to nothing. Some time later, Denver tried to put another dam on the South Platte. Fly fishermen were among the loudest voices telling Denver where to shove it.

Embargo Creek, Rio Grande National Forest, Colorado

Embargo Creek, Rio Grande National Forest, Colorado

Alas, anyone with a functioning brain can see that our society no longer offers safe haven to spiritual practices like fishing. Our government – due in part to a population that has grown by 100 million since the 70’s – has become clumsy, overbearing, and mean. We know the government we now hate is but a foil for that which truly rules us. We understand that corporations not only keep the lights on around here, but are willing to turn them off for the sake of the exclusive enrichment of the self-annointed deserving. In the eyes of the Supreme Court – aka, the known universe – corporations are persons now, although, unlike real people, they are not sent to jail or unfairly disrespected for accepting government assistance and skipping out on their bills. Like real people once were, corporations are the government.

Another evil that has evolved since the 70’s (or 1980 if we’re to mark a specific year) is the notion that money, like God, is inherently good and benevolent. Thus, even as we might despise the corporatocracy and its most objectionable impacts, we are loathe to do too much in protest. Regulation of any kind has become sacrilegious and can invite retribution.

I’ve said it many times, this pickle we’re in is our own damn fault. We have allowed agendas to endure without accounting for their negative effects. We allow conservatives to wield power without demanding that they conserve, and we suffer progressives who won’t deliver progress. Mesmerized by our televisions and cell phones, we’ve let the powerful abduct our language, to the point where their definitions have no relationship to the lives we actually lead.

Trampas Lakes, Carson National Forest, New Mexico

Trampas Lakes, Carson National Forest, New Mexico

Taking our language back would be a great first step towards ensuring the survival of our beloved sport. For example:

“Good” – Money is a good, it’s true, though not an unqualified one. For it to be good, it needs to be in more pockets, not fewer, a concept that does not require the redistribution of wealth so much as an adequate distribution from the start. Healthy food, clean and ample water and land, roads, bridges, libraries, family health, time away from work, and activities (outdoor recreation?) on which to spend it must receive equal billing in our definition of what’s good.

Rio Chama Wild and Scenic River, New Mexico

Rio Chama Wild and Scenic River, New Mexico

“Personal Responsibility” – As currently touted by pundits and politicians, this concept applies mainly to the less fortunate (oh, would that a predatory lender might receive the same jail sentence as the single mom shoplifting a loaf of bread). Under a more empathic definition, personal responsibility would mean doing our best to help our neighbors make out as well as ourselves, or at least not turning their hardship to our advantage.

In their purest forms, our religions mandate this ethic, which is not an excuse to blame others for not helping, but an encouragement to follow the most beautiful of human instincts. Catch and release fishing is a perfect acknowledgement of how blessed we should feel for our interdependent world. We release so that others may catch.

There is no way I will ever see this cutthroat again, though I hope he's even bigger when someone else does!

There is no way I will ever see this cutthroat again, though I hope he’s even bigger when someone else does!

“Courage” – While soldiers are certainly brave, the people who put them in harm’s way are not brave by association. The parent working three minimum-wage jobs, the miner toiling in unsafe conditions, the steelhead guide blogger tapping into the night for wild fish and unpolluted rivers, the 9 to 5 cubicle jockey with a mortgage and good kids, the 7 to 7 elementary school teacher, the pro bono attorney, the doctor and the nurse – we must honor their courage as well. All too frequently, folks like these are viewed as money left on the table, even as they mop up messes of the cowards that be.

“Freedom” – Relatively speaking, freedom is still prevalent in America. Believe it or not, if you’re gay, muslim, poor, female, a minority, indigenous, a market, or of another category routinely jacked up in this country, your liberties are less infringed upon than in many others.

The problem is that the corporation has come to possess grotesquely more freedom than the rest of us. In exercising its freedom, this “person” restricts our own in almost every aspect of life. It controls our government, health care, food, water, the safety of our towns, schools and workplaces, our elections, information, technology, energy, transportation, bank accounts, our love lives and education, even the climate of our planet. If its motivation were different, if the corporation was fueled by a desire to safeguard freedom instead of usurp it, the power it possesses would be a wonderful thing indeed. But this monster is as insatiable as cancer.

Castle Crags, northern California

Castle Crags, northern California

One freedom it does not yet control is our ownership of the actual dirt of America, our public land. Make no mistake though, the corporation is coming for it as sure as night follows day. In legislatures across the west, efforts to transfer federal lands to the states are being driven by corporations. If these efforts succeed, states won’t be able to afford to manage such a windfall and will be forced to liquidate. That’s the plan, and if it happens, adios.

The future of fly fishing depends on our land remaining ours. Or public lands model, the likes of which is found nowhere else on earth, is the physical contract signed by generations of mothers and fathers who built our cities, fought in and paid for our wars, who in their turn, sacrificed their own children for crisply folded flags. What the wars were about hardly matters in this context. What matters is that ordinary Americans have held up their end. Now they get to fish.

Brother Pete and nephew Sammy, public lands owners.

Brother Pete and nephew Sammy, public lands owners.

It seems cute to define freedom as the right to watch a trout eat a dry fly on your favorite mountain stream, but I’m serious as a heart attack. This, my friends, is our final stand.

Truchacabra’s History of Flyfishing in America, Part 13 – We Elect A Black President Who Wrecks Everything

MissMeYetThis meme of George W. Bush popped up almost immediately after Barack Obama was elected. Presumably, it was intended to take us back to a time when things in America were better, when Obama’s deficit did not exist but W’s did, when we weren’t mired in wars but were righteously dreaming them up. The picture was intended to be funny. Tragically, it is.

At home and abroad, fiscally and morally, we had spent eight years running up costs and shrinking revenues. To give you a parallel of how well this worked out, I operated a fly shop during the Bush years according to a similar plan and experienced similar poor results, though in our defense, our shop hadn’t shrunk revenues on purpose like Bush had. The 2008 election was to be a referendum on failure. Obama and his opponent, a courageous war veteran and former champion of campaign finance reform, proposed a major change of course.

May John McCain be remembered as an earnest and hard-working senator and not the chump who brought a bag of hammers to a nail gun fight. Many, including me, believe this famous blunder was not McCain’s choice, and that the masters of his party preferred glorifying Bush’s cynicism to repudiating it. Perhaps the best evidence of this is Sarah Palin’s enduring celebrity, and the amazing fact that there are human beings who actually want to be like her.

How can we miss you, George, when you won't go away?

How can we miss you, George, when you won’t go away?

Now we knew, as though there’d been any doubt, that they were serious. Who “they” were became clearer as well.  The evil socialist Obama gave Wall Street a stern talking to, sent it to the corner for a time out, and that was kind of it. One wonder’s why, if only rhetorically. Why did Obama’s EPA equivocate when a majority of government-hating Alaskans didn’t want a copper mine at the Bristol Bay headwaters, especially when the science and due diligence were solid?

And why did the president give only lip service to climate change? Did he believe that 95% of climate scientists agreeing on its existence (and we all know how scientists love falling in line with each others’ theories) constituted a hoax, as the remaining 5% claimed? Or might he simply have achieved “Rapture readiness”, and had a jones to bring about the end of days?

No, he saw things as straight as anyone. Obama simply understood that he was but a brick in a command structure, one that allowed him to rock boats but not tip them. If we examine his presidency, this is less a critique of him – or even of his patrons – than an indictment of us all. Hope is fine. Change, not so much. Change hurts.

obama-trout-fishingIn 2009, Trout Unlimited turned 50. This organization of over 150,000 members had dedicated itself to improving trout habitat, the tacit assumption being that trout fisheries generally existed along a continuum of poor to good quality, but that they were nevertheless permanent. In the new millenium, however, it became clear how easily trout habitat could get knocked off of this continuum, that it could actually get extinguished.

It’s one thing, as TU is adept at doing, to halt the progress of invasive trout into native trout habitat. It’s quite another to keep stream temperatures from rising when no one can decide on the nature of the threat, if one even exists, or “screw it, the whole thing’s so scary, let’s pretend it’s not going to happen in our lifetimes!” Perhaps, due to more immediate threats such as the Pebble Mine, we should be excused for not knowing how to tackle climate change.

But only partially. For one thing, if Canada’s tar sands aren’t immediate, I don’t know what is. Consider also the fishing industry. Gear companies are now corporations operating according to the standard supply side model. Great for consumer choice, though one worries about sustainability.

Like all Americans, fishermen are willing victims of capitalism’s success. If our rods are to be capable of dropping an Adams into a thimble at 50 feet, if they are to remain affordable, there must be large scale consumption and waste. To have reels, fluorocarbon, Gore-Tex, sparkle yarn and hooks, our three hour drives for trout and cross country flights for steelhead, we must drill and excavate and burn at the expense of what we love.

Gone Fishin' Photo from WyoFile

Gone Fishin’
Photo from WyoFile

Welcome to Bummer Theatre. There are some seats down in front, kind of tattered and sticky. The show’s still good, great in fact. As always, we’ll leave better people than when we came. Might at least try, though, to go easy on the popcorn.



Native Trout: I Was Born Here My Whole Life – Part 2

Speaking of trout in the modern era, consider how rare it is for a state to harbor anything endemic. To the Mogollon people of the Gila region, the glistening flanks of their native trout mirrored the gold of autumn willows, a pale yucca flower sky at dawn, the pastel cliffs where these people built their dwellings, all beneath the fertile darkness of a monsoon sky. I take for granted that I could trek into the Gila Wilderness tomorrow for the pleasure of seeing one of these endangered treasures, a luxury not available to a great many of the earth’s trout lovers.

Photo: Garrett Veneklasen

Gila Trout   Photo: Garrett Veneklasen, New Mexico Wildlife Federation

Panza Colorada (“red belly”), as Spanish settlers called the Rio Grande cutthroat trout, reflects New Mexico’s northern landscape in the same, if less subtle, manner as the Gila trout does the south. Most cutthroats are colored a shade of pinon green along the back, are flanked in blooming chamisa, and bear a scarlet stroke of Indian Paintbrush beneath the chin. In full dress, the Rio Grande cutthroat is an aspen grove or a cottonwood bosque in the peak of autumn change.

To my eye, the cutthroat’s colors speak to the diversity of the Land of Enchantment: multicolored maize harvested from pueblo gardens; caliche adobe plaster; huevos rancheros with lots of garnish; calabacitas con queso. During spawning season on the Rio Hondo, turquoise-backed cutthroats are almost perfectly camouflaged against the creek’s blue tint. I love the coincidence of the cutthroat being New Mexico’s state fish and turquoise being our state gemstone. I love thinking that, along with being biologically and aesthetically miraculous, the Rio Grande cutthroat is a legitimate cultural treasure. If that weren’t enough, consider that the cutthroat wears the yellow and red of our state flag.


Photo: Michael Rearick, Truchas Chapter Trout Unlimited

These two colors, it must be said, are also prominent on the brown trout, certainly a cutthroat killer, but also a long-trusted friend to New Mexico anglers. In current times, browns own this state as undeniably as overgrazing does, and energy exploration, real estate development and, most recently, drought. We’re tired of the low water, but even in red, yellow, or bare dirt brown, New Mexico is beautiful yet.

So is the brown trout, an animal that has contributed much to the sporting pursuits we so cherish in these very dry times. Brown trout and, – in the case of the San Juan, Vallecitos, and Rio Grande – rainbows draw anglers from around the globe to fish here, not to mention to our restaurants and hotels. Turning back the clock to pre-brown trout conditions would be unrealistic, expensive, and impossible. And even if we could eliminate the non-natives, most of us wouldn’t want to. If the cutthroat is our red chile enchilada, the brown trout is our Lotaburger, always there, always good, and on special occasions, you get double meat and bacon.

And bacon............

Depending on who you are, being born n’ raised New Mexican is either a blessing, an honor, or a curse. Sometimes it’s all of that: life’s wonderful here, it takes a unique sensibility to appreciate that, but dang if getting by isn’t harsh in this high desert. If only we would accord our native trout the same kind of respect for representing our rugged landscape and hardscrabble culture. I have difficulty believing that there are still people who would see the Gila and the Rio Grande cutthroat trout go off the cliff of extinction. They see natives and non-natives as existentially exclusive, which is a crying shame.

Brown trout and rainbows are necessary and they are relevant. They represent where we are in time and as a society. As natives, Gilas and cutthroats add a deeper layer; they recall our history, thus our essence as New Mexicans. These dual concepts needn’t conflict. Rather, they should be as inseparable as Chaco Canyon and lowriders and fry bread and ranching and Zozobra and cell phones, and that inevitable March sadness whenever the Lobos make the dance and choke in the first round. Seriously, if we New Mexicans are good at preserving one thing, it’s our heritage; where else in America is fresh green chile roasted in supermarket parking lots?

All of New Mexico’s trout contribute to our sporting culture. I like to think they symbolize that long drive home from a trip outdoors, when we’re hungry and not quite sure how to take care of it. Hatchery fish are the Fritos that tide you over until a roadside eatery, which, like a brawny Rio Chama brown trout, usually does the job. Sometimes, though, that growl in your gut is just a little too loud and can only be quelled by the innate and the ancestral. Forever may we honor this hunger and keep it.

Where I'm from, with extra garnish!

Panza Colorada!