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Thursday, October 31, 2013

Come Flames Or High Water

Historic orchard in Frijoles Canyon
The storm was freakish. In just a few days, eight inches of rain had fallen in Bandelier National Monument. This was extraordinary for a landscape that begs for 16 inches of precipitation annually. But unusual has become the norm for Bandelier. In just more than a decade, summer temperatures have gotten hotter, precipitation has declined, fires are bigger and floods devastating.

Evidence of change can be seen throughout the monument. Pinon pines, killed by drought, stand lifeless on the mesa, charred trees blackened by fire topple in the wind, and creeks churn thick with ash and mud during summer storms. We, the stewards of Bandelier, have come to expect the unexpected and learn to live with a new geography. We prepare, as best we know how, to deal with disaster.

Thirty thousand sandbags are propped on the cement barriers, creek-side, in the historic district of Bandelier National Monument. The sandbags were put in place in 2011, just after the Las Conchas Fire roared over two thirds of Bandelier National Monument. Sandbags are not typically what you would expect to find in a national park. Most parks are beautiful. We come to witness the sublime. Sandbags are not pretty, nor are they sublime, but perhaps in this era of changing climate, it is time to re-calibrate our expectations and even our notion of beauty. 

Charred forest
It was 4:20 in the afternoon, on September 12, when I received the call from Ranger Ryan at the visitor center, “We expect high water to arrive within a half hour.”  Ryan was accurate. Within 30 minutes water burst over the banks of Little Bean Creek creating a current too swift to safely traverse.  Visitors had been informed to stay away from and not cross the creek. Stranded, two noncompliant men shivered in the rain, waiting helplessly, on the far side of the creek, for the current to subside, before crossing to safety. Was it a sense of adventure that led them to cross?

Since the fire in 2011, two significant flooding events have occurred in Frijoles Canyon, the first happened two months after the fire, the second onslaught of water came in July of this year. The third was imminent. More rain was predicted overnight and into tomorrow.

Picnic area
At approximately 8:30 am, the following morning, on Friday, September 13th, an unprecedented surge of water roared down frijoles canyon, tossing boulders, uprooting trees, lifting picnic tables, busting steel cables, tossing sand bags in a frothy mess of ash and mud at a speed of 9000cubic feet per second, leaving a mud line at 13’ above the canyon floor, leaving us wondering if this is the new normal? 
After several days of cleaning up and re-routing trails, post flood, Bandelier re-opened for business. We have become an outdoor laboratory for anyone curious about the effects of fire and flood in a dynamic landscape.
Trail to Alcove House
We continue to be awed by the power of water as we scramble up, over and around boulders and haystacks of trees piled high when exploring the upper regions of Frijoles Canyon. We don’t wonder if this will happen again, we just figure it will and we will do our best to be prepared. We have adjusted to the unfamiliar and changing face of Bandelier.

Fire and flood are not uncommon ecological events. Ecosystems like the one at Bandelier are meant to burn, lightly, every five to ten years. In doing so, nutrients return to the soil and the density of trees and ground fuel remain low. But we have tampered with nature and created conditions conducive for massive, hot, crown fires.

Until relatively recently, and perhaps too late, land managers believed forest fires were detrimental and should be extinguished as soon as possible. This policy of fire suppression created unnaturally dense forests. Fuel laden landscapes combined with our contribution to a changing climate has led to a rise in high intensity, high acreage fires. Bandelier’s forest and streams are heir to this legacy. 

Visitors to Bandelier often ask if any lives were lost in the fires. Yes. Vegetation, animals and insects perish with every forest fire and subsequent flood. No fish or aquatic invertebrates are left in the park streams following the floods. In many parts of the park there is now much less food and shelter for the animals that did survive.
Frijoles Creek
Sometimes events out of our control, ones that have nothing to do with fire or climate change, prevent visitation to Bandelier. On October 1, Bandelier was closed due to the government shutdown.We locked the doors and gate and walked away leaving patrol rangers as caretakers during the closure. As rangers and land managers we never truly walk away from a place that we love and love to share with others. Like the visitors who come to the park each autumn, we were anxious to return to this changed but beautiful place we call Bandelier.
Long House
On October 17, the government re-opened. In the warmth of the brilliant October sun I greeted visitors back to Bandelier National Monument. Many extended the same warm welcome to me. Come flames or high water Bandelier is here for you.

Nature Trail

1 comment:

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