For close to 30 years now, my husband and I have been backpacking, hiking and snowshoeing in New Mexico. These activities have allowed us to become well-acquainted with wilderness areas throughout the state.

In the past, cows were released into these areas to be "grass-finished" in small numbers and for just a few weeks, usually in late September, when the ground was already fairly dry. We would see them around the Santa Fe ski basin, by the Big Tesuque and Nambé rivers, up Alamo Vista Trail on Carl's Meadow, as high as the saddle on Santa Fe Baldy and the saddle between Tesuque Peak and Deception Peak.

This less-than-satisfactory state of affairs has changed dramatically, for the worse, in recent years. Because of the profitability found in "grass-fed" beef, cows are being released in wilderness areas in larger numbers, and they remain there for much longer periods of time. Here are a couple of examples, from the Pecos Wilderness, that illustrate well the situation.

As part of a two-night backpacking trip, we spent the night of June 26 in La Vega, a beautiful meadow nurtured by the Nambé River, off Winsor Trail, by the Santa Fe ski basin. We saw at least 20 cows trampling the meadow and a runoff from the river. We stayed in the only established campsite, which was filled with cow and horse feces.

On Aug. 5, we started at the Iron Gate Campground, near Cowles, on a two-night backpacking trip along Hamilton Mesa and down by the Valdez River. The Hamilton Mesa Trail was, in all its 10 miles, post-holed and made into a swamp by a mixture of rainwater, urine and dissolving feces. As we walked, we saw large herds of cows all along. Our first night, we used an established campsite at the end of Hamilton Mesa, above the Valdez River. The site had been trampled by cows and horses.

The next day, we went down the Valdez River Trail. We were shocked by the level of destruction we witnessed. Not only the ground was trampled and turned into a swamp, but the banks of the river were tremendously damaged at the numerous places where cows had crossed and recrossed the river.

No grazing fee can make up for this destruction. We saw cows everywhere, probably at least a hundred in all. This state of affairs continued for about six of the eight miles between the end of Hamilton Mesa and Mora Flats. As we went down the trail, we met a large group of high schoolers making their way up the trail. We always find great pleasure in seeing young people taking to the outdoors. Alas, in this occasion, they and their leaders were sorely disappointed to learn the meadow where they had planned to spend the first night had been taken over by cows.

If a restaurant or store offers New Mexican, grass-fed beef, there is a good chance it was produced in the wilderness. Few cattle growers own the fertile land needed to raise grass-fed cows on private property.

Josefina "Lolina" Alvarez is emeritus professor of mathematics at New Mexico State University. She lives in Santa Fe with husband Larry Hughes and doggie Lily.

(6) comments

Mike Johnson

I'm not willing to give up my grass fed rib eye, prime rib, T-bones, etc. for some hikers' personal problems. Talk to MLG about her Wagyu steak habit, maybe she will have more sympathy for your kind of people.

Gini Barrett

I had no idea that New Mexico had so many wild horse herds, as this writer states that horses had been destroying the environment in all the same places as cattle. Or are ranchers running their own horses free in these leased lands as well as cattle?

tai garden

There are no wild horses or horse grazing pastures in the wilderness. The horses are used by private equestrians and the few remaining outfitter/guides.

tai garden

It is unfortunate that the New Mexican chose to publish an essay with such serious factual errors. It has never been true that cattle spent a few weeks in late September being "finished" on the USFS land.

For many decades, cattle have entered the designated wilderness lands in late June and stayed until shortly before the start of the September hunting seasons. The only years in which this has not been the case have been in times of extreme drought due to lack of grass or extreme fire danger.

The writer might object to the conditions she observed, but her description of past cattle grazing practices is simply wrong, and current conditions are in no way related to an increasing interest in grass-fed beef.

Gini Barrett

This comment is accurate. Grassfed or not, cattle are not "finished" out in the wilderness. That is a close quarters, controlled phase, whatever approach the rancher is taking. The vast majority of grassfed beef sold in the U.S. comes from Australia or New Zealand. (about 70 to 80%)

carol Johnson

I just posted this story to Facebook. The USFS must close the Wilderness to cattle when the monsoons come!

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