CIMARRON — The charred remnants of pine trees stood in a ghostly forest with thick ash covering the ground like snow.
When Juan Diego Lopez entered “the black” for the first time last summer to survey the damage the Ute Park Fire had inflicted upon the heart of the Philmont Scout Ranch, he struggled to recognize the northeast New Mexico mountain retreat that’s become an iconic brand within the scouting community.
“It was very eerie,” said Lopez, a recent engineering graduate from George Mason University and a camp director at Philmont. “I’ve been here for five years and this place has given me a lot, so the thought that went through my mind was this area can’t be used by another Scout for, at the very least, another five to 10 years.
“I have a lot invested here, so I decided to stay and help out.”
Extremely dry conditions following the fire that burned more than 27,000 of Philmont’s 140,177 acres resulted in the cancellation of the ranch’s backpacking season for the first time in its 80-year history. That meant Lopez and other Philmont staffers had to make a jarring transition. Rather than serve as program counselors and aiding the experience of some 20,000 Scouts on their treks, many joined fire rehab crews and performed grueling manual labor.
Appointed a fire rehab crew leader, Lopez and his teams would begin their arduous, grungy work in the burn scar before dawn to avoid the 100-plus degree temperatures during the heat of day. They learned to build log erosion barriers to help stabilize the earth on the scorched slopes, and used shovels and buckets to scoop out ash and dirt from the “sludge box” of the Cimarroncito Reservoir.
“At the very beginning, some of the hardest parts were motivating yourself for it because the work is incredibly tedious and hard,” said Lopez, from Hopkinton, Mass. “To find your motivation, it was like, ‘It’s all about next summer. It’s all about next summer.’ And that’s what keeps you going.”
Next summer is here, and a year after no Scouts trekked through backcountry, Philmont officials say they’re on pace for a record 24,000 participants. Scouts began arriving June 8, with 400 to 500 entering base camp every day to begin their seven- to 12-day treks.
Roger Hoyt came on as Philmont’s new general manager in January, taking charge of efforts to ready the ranch for the large contingent and working on continued fire mitigation and restoration plans.
Though he wasn’t present for the fires of the previous summer, he said he had tears in his eyes as the first bus of Scouts pulled into base camp.
“When we saw those young men and women pile off the bus, it was the return of the fulfillment of our mission,” Hoyt said. “We knew that the land had changed, but we knew that the program we provide was getting ready to change lives once again.”
As Scouts return to experience Philmont’s grandeur, the ranch’s forestry crew is focused on reducing the risk of future fires. Restoration crews continue to work on repairing the land within the burn scar. The area occupies 20 percent of the ranch’s backcountry and is off limits to Scouts.
Philmont has received nearly $500,000 in donations for fire recovery efforts, and more than 150 volunteers came to the ranch during the spring to provide physical labor. Hoyt said his goal is to raise $1.5 million to $2 million each year for the next five years for fire mitigation, land restoration and efforts to protect Philmont’s water sources.
Zachary Seeger, a forester at the ranch, said Philmont had a forestry work crew of 10 people before the fire. Now it’s up to 28 members who spend much of their time thinning areas of forest that are overgrown and filled with fuel.
The Ute Park Fire burned an area that hadn’t had a fire in 100-plus years, due to fire suppression and other management tactics. But Seeger said that got the forest out of its natural cycle, and with so much fuel, it was just a matter of time before it went up in flames.
He feels the event has made Philmont realize it’s time to get serious about fire mitigation.
“For us, the work in the green is a little more important than the work in the black,” Seeger said. “What’s done is done. The landscape is going to take its own time to recover, but we do know the consequences of not treating, so we’re putting our effort forth to prevent the next fire.”
Philmont has been using the fire as an education tool. The ranch has a demonstration forest where Scouts can learn the model of a healthy forest. Scouts also work three hours on a conservation project during their time at Philmont, and some have been learning about fire mitigation and restoration.
The disappointment and loss that wracked Philmont last year has been replaced by hope and excitement this summer.
Hoyt says there’s always been a resiliency pulsing through Philmont, where Scouts test their limits during 50- to 100-mile treks through the wilderness. He said he feels that positivity and optimism have been amplified since the reopening of the backcountry.
“Just like when the forest fire comes in and scorches the land, it also provides a great opportunity for renewal,” Hoyt said. “That’s what we’ve seen with those who have been here and come back that, yes, there was a scar, but everyone has their memories.
“What this summer has been about is building on that renewal and that sense of hope that we have for what this land can be in the future.”
Lopez experienced that as soon as he returned to Philmont.
When he arrived this summer to serve as camp director, one of the first things he did was visit the burn area. There, Lopez saw an uplifting example of how the grueling work of last summer’s fire rehab crews was aiding in the regeneration of the land he loves.
“I looked down, and the most satisfying feeling was seeing that there were flowers and grass on the log erosion barriers,” Lopez said. “It’s honestly incredibly satisfying knowing that the hours and hours of work are actually doing something. So it’s not only holding erosion, it’s actually supporting life.”