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.