Ask the average Santa Fe resident why the public is barred from accessing the upper watershed — 17,000 square acres of high-alpine forest spanning steep river canyons and a pair of stunning reservoirs, all just a few miles from the Plaza — and you will likely hear a variety of answers. Fire danger. The threat of erosion. Protection from a terrorist attack. After nearly a century of barbed-wire fences, security patrols and threats of harsh penalties for trespassing, most of us accept these explanations.

“We sort of drink the Kool-Aid,” says Jesse Roach of residents’ acquiescence to the watershed’s closure. A Santa Fe native and hydrologist who has spent his career studying watersheds throughout the Southwest, Roach serves on the board of directors with the Santa Fe Watershed Association and the fledgling Upper Watershed Alternative Recreation Management working group, a coalition of local nonprofits like the Santa Fe Fat Tire Society and the Santa Fe Conservation Trust devoted to studying the prospect of limited recreation at the watershed.

Despite 84 years of being locked out, Roach says Santa Feans should not give up on the idea of someday hiking, biking or fishing in the watershed. “The truth is, Santa Fe is all alone on this issue.”

Roach points to Denver, Fort Collins and Colorado Springs in Colorado as well as Raton and Ruidoso — to name just a few — all of which allow some form of public recreation in and around their municipal watersheds. In fact, Santa Fe’s watershed is the only example of a public-lands watershed in Colorado or New Mexico that is permanently closed to public recreation. (A small, private-land portion of Boulder’s watershed is closed, and Alamogordo’s Bonito Lake, closed since the Little Bear Fire in 2012, is expected to reopen next year.)

It’s not just Colorado and New Mexico, either. On any given summer day, sailboats and water skiers glide along the surface of Utah’s Lake Powell, and anglers stalk the tributaries of Upper Lake Mary, outside Flagstaff, Ariz. Nevada’s Lake Mead, the source of 90 percent of the drinking water for Las Vegas, Nev., hosts some 7 million visitors each year, making it the sixth-most visited site in the National Park system.

So what gives? While closing the watershed might have made sense to the U.S. secretary of agriculture in 1932, when logging, overuse, and “human occupancy” threatened what was then an indispensable water source for the city, water-treatment technology and land-use practices, like mechanical thinning and prescribed burning, have improved dramatically over the last eight decades. Meanwhile, while the watershed is still a significant source of water — accounting for as much as 50 percent of Santa Fe’s supply — in recent years the city has often drawn the majority of its water from more reliable sources like local wells, the San Juan-Chama project, and the Buckman well field near the Rio Grande.

Why is the crown jewel of Santa Fe locked away when similarly situated cities across the Southwest work with agencies such as the U.S. Forest Service to allow year-round swimming, camping and mountain biking throughout their public-land watersheds for no more than the cost of a day-use permit?

Megan Hosterman, a graduate student studying community and regional planning at The University of New Mexico, asked the same question when she moved here from Colorado in 2014. Shortly after arriving in Santa Fe, she and her boyfriend set out on a day hike to the watershed. “We just assumed it was open after checking Google Maps,” she says. “Then we ran into that 80-year-old sign saying it was closed due to the threat of erosion and wildfire.”

Like Roach, Hosterman was inspired rather than dissuaded by the daunting obstacles to accessing the watershed. She soon launched into a suitability study examining how limited recreation — such as hiking, biking and fishing — might impact conditions at the watershed. She points to Colorado Springs as a useful case study. There, voters, the city council, the local water utility and other agencies have been working together for decades to open thousands of acres of formerly protected watersheds to recreation, often with strict limitations. For example, the 10,000-acre South Slope Recreation Area opened in 2014 after more than a century of being off-limits to public use. Initially, just 16 permits per day were offered by lottery. Hosterman hopes her study, due out this summer, will spark the same kind of public interest and civic engagement.

“The context has changed so much in 84 years,” she says. “It’s time to revisit the reasons our watershed was closed.”

Joseph Hart, a nature photographer and fly-fishing guide for Land of Enchantment Guides, couldn’t agree more. Confronted by a heavily armed security guard while taking pictures at the margins of the watershed years ago, Hart believes everyone should have the opportunity to visit the area. “The concentration of wildlife is so high up there because of all the water coming down from the ski basin,” he says. “We’re lucky to live in a city with such a beautiful natural environment right there at the edge of town.”

Despite the controversy, even some in the political sphere, like former mayor David Coss and City Councilor Ron Trujillo, welcome the opportunity to discuss what a limited recreation plan would look like.

“It’s a shame that we keep Santa Feans out of the mountains,” says Coss, now the executive chairman of the Rio Grande Chapter of the Sierra Club. Coss acknowledges that it could take an act of Congress to lift the secretary of agriculture’s 1932 order, though he emphasizes that the historical, cultural and educational value to future generations would be worth the effort.

“That’s where our ancestors used to go,” Coss says. “If people could see it up above, they might protect it more below.”

Ultimately, Sandy Hurlocker, district ranger for the Forest Service’s Española District, stresses that any effort to open the watershed will likely take years of intense collaboration between the Forest Service, the public and the Santa Fe Water Utility, which currently manages the watershed and owns much of the land. Along the way, major challenges would have to be addressed, like access, parking, fire danger, trail development and overturning the 84-year-old federal order that originally closed the area.

Though Hurlocker says opening the watershed is “at the bottom of the Forest Service’s to-do list,” the idea is not entirely off the table. One avenue forward would be via a Forest Plan Revision, a process by which the Forest Service discusses changes to wilderness boundaries and management with various stakeholders before making recommendations to the federal government. In essence, the Forest Service would absorb sections of the upper watershed currently owned by Santa Fe.

“It’s uncharted territory for us,” he says. “But we’ll be talking to the city and the public over the next year … just kind of sticking our toe in the water.”

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