The Northside trails above Taos Ski Valley offer some of the best biking and hiking in the country. For mountain bikers, the single-track access to New Mexico’s stunning high-alpine terrain is unmatched in most of the United States.

I’ve ridden these trails at least once a month this spring and summer, finding the grueling climb and the green, damp forest restorative. The route starts at the village and climbs relentlessly to Frazer Mountain’s 12,168-foot summit. Yet right now, the Northside trails are closed to the public.

And that is a great thing for outdoor recreationists.

Northside is closed because forest professionals are thinning the area, with the goal of reducing wildfire risks. Due to the climate crisis and a historic policy of fire suppression, forests throughout the West tend to be choked with dead and dying trees and crowded with dry underbrush. Those conditions have the potential to ignite catastrophic mega-fires that burn hotter and more unpredictably than wildfires of the past.

By closing the trails for thinning and other fire mitigation, the Northside leadership sets an example for private and public land managers throughout the West. But they’re certainly not the only ones in New Mexico or Taos County to advance grassroots forest restoration.

One watershed to the south, the Rio Lucero Watershed Restoration Project, has done phenomenal work with la Asociación del Salto del Agua, thinning the forest and connecting those efforts to jobs for locals through groups like Rocky Mountain Youth Corps.

The project brings together many partners, including la Asociación del Salto del Agua, Taos Pueblo and the Nature Conservancy. These and other groups are united as the Taos Valley Watershed Coalition and have thinned thousands of acres, performed over 800 acres of prescribed burns and brought in millions of federal and state dollars to the community.

“The restoration work happening in El Salto is a cool mix of wildfire risk reduction, workforce development and community empowerment,” said J.R. Logan, project manager and wildland-urban interface coordinator. “It’s exciting to see how good collaboration among a variety of partners is leading to tangible benefits for the ecological, cultural and economic health of rural northern New Mexico.”

“The work … has been tremendous not just in Taos, but more broadly, it’s unquestionably a model for others,” said Horacio Trujillo of la Asociación del Salto. “Thanks to the [Taos Valley Watershed Coalition] and [the Nature Conservancy’s Rio Grande Water Fund] for the foresight to help the families of la Asociación del Salto del Agua recognize the critical role that the El Salto land plays in our communities’ well-being.”

The El Salto trails are open to recreationists with a day or annual pass. The Northside trails will likely remain closed for the rest of the year. If you’re someone like me who loves those trails and will miss them in the coming months, please remember the bigger community-first aim behind the closure. In other words, don’t let the trees obscure your vision of the forest. Thinning and burning are essential if we want to continue hiking, riding and exploring these wild areas in the future.

Axie Navas is the director of the New Mexico Outdoor Recreation Division.

(3) comments

Khal Spencer

Keep up the good work, Axie. Having seen cinders descending on our house during the Las Conchas fire, I'm not in need of being reminded of the need for proper recovery of our forests from a century or more of neglect and mismanagement.

Melissa Savage

Forest thinning has been clearly shown to have protected communities in the Southwest. Wildfires drop down from the canopy to the ground and can be managed by fire crews. Montana has different kinds of forests.

Jerry Black

Active Forest Management Does Not Work..................

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