The Jemez Mountains offer a vibrant display of fall colors. Photograph by NMTD.
IT WAS MID-NOVEMBER when we finally made it to Bandelier National Monument, near Los Alamos, for the first time. By then, the gold, yellow, and rusty hues of fall had disappeared from the ridges of the Jemez Mountains. The aspen leaves that remained— crisped and brittle—blanketed the ground or floated by in the ripples of Frijoles Creek.
I’m not sure why, but except for a small marker at the top of the canyon, we were virtually unaware that the Las Conchas Fire had ripped through 156,000 acres of this landscape just a decade earlier. Maybe it was because winter’s grip had taken hold of the trees and vegetation or because we were more focused on the work of the Ancestral Pueblo people. Maybe it was the excitement of encountering mule deer and later elk, or maybe it was because we were experiencing all of it for the first time, with nothing for comparison.
When we returned to the Jemez for a July hike along the East Fork Trail, the effects of the Las Conchas Fire seemed thrust upon us: a forest of blackened tree trunks punctuating the green hillside, scorched bark reaching up some 40 feet on massive pines, and tiny silver tags marking others for observation.
The snapshot of these two experiences, less than a year apart, kept running through my mind as I read Elizabeth Miller’s story about the impact of wildfire on the Jemez and other areas of the state as part of our “Fall in Love” cover story. As she notes, there are places where fire has completely rewritten the forest’s future. In others, that future hangs in the balance.
New predictions about climate change from an advisory panel for the Interstate Stream Commission estimate that temperatures in New Mexico could increase between five and seven degrees Fahrenheit over the next 50 years. The rise could lengthen periods of drought, decrease aquifer recharge, further stress plant life, and increase the likelihood of catastrophic wildfires.
“We humans tend to not see change over time,” arborist Joran Viers tells Managing Editor Kate Nelson in the same feature. “But we’re in a time now where tremendous ecological change is happening.”
I plan to return to the Jemez again this fall and do my share of leaf peeping in other parts of the state—and hope you do, too. Let the changing season serve as a reminder of what’s at stake all around us and the importance of keeping it safe.