PECOS CANYON — By Sunday afternoons in the summer, the trash bins at several camping and picnic sites in the steep, wooded Pecos Canyon are overflowing. Campers have tried to keep the garbage corralled in plastic bags, but it still spills out on the ground near the Pecos and Mora Rivers.
The New Mexico Department of Game and Fish manages several of the sites and has done what it can to clean them up and protect the riverbanks from hordes of over-enthusiastic campers who want to park on the edge of the water. It is tough to keep up with the impact of thousands of campers, anglers, hikers and picnickers during the summer without regular staff and maintenance.
“I think they need to pay a little more attention to the facilities,” said Benny Romero of Las Vegas, N.M., who grew up taking camping trips to the canyon. “You would think they would have someone there daily on the weekend to take trash. It would be nice if it was a little more camper friendly.”
The Department of Game and Fish is in the business of managing wildlife, not managing campgrounds. Local residents and businesses lobbied hard to have management of popular camping and fishing sites such as Bert Clancy, Dalton, Terrero and Jamie Koch turned over to New Mexico State Parks.
But creation of a Pecos Canyon State Park appears a long way from becoming a reality.
The state Legislature approved the park east of Santa Fe two years ago, pending funding and a final agreement between the two state agencies. The state is strapped for cash, and State Parks struggles to maintain its existing 35 parks on a shrinking budget with fewer staff. Adding another one would take innovative thinking in how to raise funds.
The Pecos Canyon recreation sites are sprinkled along N.M. 63, the only road that winds the length of the narrow canyon for about 17 miles, north from the village of Pecos. Pecos businesses see the creation of a park as a way to protect the canyon while drawing more visitors.
Until the last couple of years, visitors camped right on the edge of the rivers, packing down stream banks and causing sediment to flow off the trampled soil into the water. The Department of Game and Fish installed metal pipes to keep people away from the stream banks and installed trash cans to handle the mounds of garbage left by campers. They hired someone to haul off the trash.
“Overall it is better, but go there on any given Monday and you will see the aftermath of campers,” said Patrick Block, assistant director of the Department of Game and Fish.
Game and Fish might be willing to turn over the management of the sites to the State Parks division, but not until there’s money to create the park. Any such agreement would have to be approved by the governor-appointed State Game Commission. “If you sign an agreement like that it creates a huge expectation on the part of the public [to have a park],” Block said.
A 2008 study by the U.S Forest Service found the canyon attracted a regular customer base, with more than 3,700 vehicles visiting the canyon in one day. It estimated the cost of creating the park at half a million and the cost of operating it annually at $432,000. The total build-out cost — to upgrade bathrooms and improve campsites among other work — is estimated at $6.2 million.
The problem is where to find the money.
New Mexico Rep. Luciano “Lucky” Varela and Sen. Phil Griego both support creation of the park. Varela notes efforts by the federal government to clean up contamination from an old mine site, and by the Santa Fe National Forest to fix up the Jack’s Creek horse camping site at the northern tip of Pecos Canyon as signs of the area’s potential. “This is a crown jewel, a beautiful place,” Varela said.
Varela said he’s talked to the Department of Game and Fish about using some of the $34 million Game Protection Fund to pay State Parks to manage the Pecos Canyon. But the revenue for that fund is generated almost entirely by hunting and fishing license fees. Federal and state regulations restrict how it can be used.
Former Gov. Bill Richardson approved a bill in 2010 to create the Pecos Canyon State Park, but he opposed raiding the Game Protection Fund for money to make and operate the park. Richardson said taking money from the fund risked violating federal law and could cost the state millions in revenue from the Wildlife and Sport Fish Restoration Act.
John Bemis, secretary of Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources, said there simply is no money to move forward with a new park. “None of the state parks turns a profit. Each one operates in the red,” Bemis said. “It is not financially feasible to go forward with it.”
State Parks receives most of its money from the general fund. The agency isn’t planning on asking for more funds for a new park in the foreseeable future. The agency is down 15 employees since 2010, many of them park ranger positions.
User fees bring in about 10 percent of the agency’s budget. Day use and camping fees per vehicle at state parks are less than a six-pack of quality beer — $5 for day use, $8 for primitive camping and $10 for developed camping. Those fees haven’t been raised since 1998.
User fees at all state parks brought in a steadily increasing amount of revenue for the agency, ironically, through the economic crash. It rose from $3.7 million in fiscal year 2008 to $4.04 million in fiscal year 2011. Revenues declined to $3.7 million in fiscal 2012.
Game and Fish doesn’t charge a fee for people to use the recreation sites.
Romero, who hunts in the Pecos Wilderness, said he would be willing to pay a fee and thinks turning the area into a state park is a good idea. He camps with his family at other state parks and thinks they are well worth the fee.
So does Johnny Chavez of Santa Fe, who’s been fishing and camping in the Pecos Canyon all his life. Now he brings his four children and wife there. “It is our go-to place,” Chavez said, Sunday evening after spending the weekend fly fishing at Bert Clancy. “I think it is one of the most beautiful places in the state.”
He thinks it would be good for it to be a state park and also would be willing to pay the fees. “I would really, really, really love for my children to take their children and their grandchildren up into the Pecos. That takes a lot of maintenance.”
Contact Staci Matlock at 986-3055 or firstname.lastname@example.org.