Monday, August 27, 2012

Don't take a pass on this New Mexico desert

LAS CRUCES, NEW MEXICO - For roughly 500 years the sky above to the earth below has shaped how Europeans use and live in this corner of the vast and imposing Chihuahuan Desert.

Indeed, for millennium before the arrival of the Spanish in the 16th Century the forces of wind, brutalizing temperatures, generally poor soils and a dearth of rainfall molded how the indigenous people scratched out an existence with whatever resources they could plumb.

Yet even today people still manage to make do, in ever increasing numbers, too.

Then there are those folks just passing through on their way to better-known outdoors destinations in places likes Albuquerque or (worst of all if you’re a New Mexico patriot) Arizona.

However, they shouldn’t slide past New Mexico’s second most populous city as they zip along I-10 and I-25 at 75 mph.

For just on the cusp of the "City of  the Crosses” the wild things grow; all in spite of untold centuries of buzzing human activities.

“You know, it’s amazing that so many just use Las Cruces as an overnight stop. There really is a lot of things to do here,” said Ben Gabriel, New Mexico State University’s Outdoors Recreation Program administrator.

If anyone should know it is Gabriel. After completing his own college stint at Ohio University, Gabriel uprooted himself from his Zanesville home.

Gabriel would go and try his hand at white-water river rafting in east Tennessee. Somewhere along his own walkabout, Gabriel found the high-ground Chihuahuan Desert much to his liking.

This ecologically important sphere is a 140,000-square mile complex of sand, rock, mountains, depressions, flats, and even an odd river or two like the Rio Grande.

Oh, and it’s the Western Hemisphere’s third largest, too.

Among the desert’s mountain ranges are the Organs, so-named because of their geological resemblance to organ pipes that poke themselves up to a height of around 9,000 feet.

Don’t be fooled by the starkness of these bare-bone fingers of ancient rock, though. They may very well be the most botanically diverse range of mountains in all of New Mexico.

And there are lots and lots of mountain ranges in New Mexico, all of which are coinage for the greater sum of the Rocky Mountains.

“When I’m in town I can always tell where I am because I can look up and see these mountain spires,” said Gabriel. “But I can come up here and know that I’m on my own.”

Still, a person standing at the Dripping Springs Natural Area's visitors center can see Las Cruces oozing out from the desert plain 10 miles away, the park-like natural area sees fewer than 20,000 visitors annually.

A sliver of the BLM’s Organ and Franklin Mountains Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) Recreation Lands, Dripping Springs encompasses no actual set boundary dimensions though the larger area uncoils to 56,480 acres.

With over four miles of hiking trails of various lengths and challenges available, the one-half mile up-and-back La Chueva Rocks Trail was Gabriel’s choice for the day. This trek begins at the natural area’s visitors center, skirts the base of La Chueva Rocks and past Hermit’s Cave, finishing up at a picnic area.

Straddling the trail system is queue of endemic plant species that are the signature fauna for desert shrub and arroyo environs: Creosote, mesquite, desert willow, fish-hook barrel cactus, banana yucca, and plains prickly pear cactus, among others.

Gabriel also pointed out a trove of prickly pear cactus plants that had seen better days. It seems that an unseasonably long stretch of winter cold chilled the life out of the plants.

Then again, other cacti bore the worrying mark of the javelina, a largely nocturnal swine-like critter that harbors no qualms about eating plants bristling with thorns.

At least a few of the cactus plants welcomed the trail’s travelers with a showy display of colorful flowers. I know because I took the time to “ooh” and “aah” at flowers creeping out from between cactus thorns to others more delicate than a whisper.

Impacted with stenosis that has entwined my back and neck along with the stress of dealing with prostate cancer, I am more than always willing to slow my pace to a crawl.

Which, in the case of this hike, was a good thing. I could call a halt at any time during the hike’s progress, using the layover as an excuse to inspect something of interest.

My eye caught a flick of motion at the tidal edge of the trail and desert. Looking down I saw a New Mexico whiptail lizard. Further along the trail ran another jackrabbit-quick lizard, an animal that moved so swiftly that making a positive I.D. on the species was all but impossible.

Which also was a good thing, especially for the lizard.

“Roadrunners love to eat lizards; it’s their favorite food,” said Nancy Stotz, a volunteer birding guide for New Mexico’s 300-acre Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park.

This park teeters on the knife edge between populated Las Cruces and an agronomist’s brew of farming and ranching.

Along one side of the park slides the walnut-brown-colored Upper Rio Grande River which divides the U.S. from Mexico about 30 miles downstream.

Up here, however, the river has helped to create a lush serpentine oasis less than a rifle-shot in width. In fact, the word “bosque” means “riverside forest.”

Filled with all sorts of interesting stuff, the park is relatively new for the state. It was acquired through a series of hand-offs until its title finally docked in New Mexico’s land-holding vault. That was in 2008.

Another 600 acres are expected to fall into the park’s purview as well, opening up all kinds of opportunities to expand the unit’s current cache of 1 1/2 miles of graveled foot paths.

Here there are lots of arresting nature visuals. Gawk, if you like, at the park’s many diminutive Rufus hummingbirds. Then seek out the unit’s Gamble’s quail before moving on up the desert’s chain of command to include bobcats, coyotes and - yes - the ubiquitous greater roadrunner, a bird species that would much rather run than fly.

In all, more than 250 bird species are known to have visited Mesilla Valley at least once. That tally includes 60 year-round residents which share their narrow watershed neighborhood with a host of migrating distant avian kinfolk.

And one of those largely former visitors has now taken up residence in and around the park. The white-wing dove has made something of a name for itself, its population bursting at the seams in this valley.

Asked why the white-wing dove has found much to like about the Upper Rio Grande watershed, Stotz says it’s because of the area’s heavily irrigated and neatly maintained pecan groves.

It seems that white-wing doves enjoy feasting on pecans the way their long-since extinct cousin, the passenger pigeon, relished eating the mast produced in uber-abundance by the-then East’s seemingly endless forests of nut-bearing trees.

Of course, not all strangers are welcome. The salt cedar is one such thief, stealing nutrients and the valley’s incalculably valuable water.

Efforts are underway to engage the enemy in combat, however, Stotz says.

The attack plan calls for eradicating as much as possible the fast-growing cedar, an invasive pest that likes nothing more than to elbow out native plant species.

“It’s going to be a never-ending battle to keep salt cedar at bay,” Stotz says.

Being attached to the Upper Rio Grande’s hip has helped, Stotz says, allowing the state park to use the stream’s water “to our advantage, which is so important to wildlife.”

Important for wildlife, of course, but equally valuable to humans. Just not that many of the latter, though.

Fewer than 10,000 people visit the park annually, in spite of the fact that it belly-ups to Las Cruses and is an easy, short detour from the interstate system.

“It’s sort of a hidden treasure,” Stotz said.

Yep, and while the Spanish Conquistadors did not find much in the way of silver and gold here they did leave behind - naturally speaking, anyway - just too much of a good thing to leave behind in a car’s rearview mirror.

For further information about Dripping Springs Natural Area, visit the Bureau of Land Management web site at or call, 575-525-4300.

For information abut the Mesilla Valley Bosque State Park, visit its web site or call 575-523-4398.

For information about Las Cruces and its links to its various, related, associations, amenities, outdoors recreational opportunities, visit the Las Cruces Visitors and Convention Bureau’s web site at or call 575-541-2444.

- Jeffrey L. Frischkorn
Twitter: @Fieldkorn

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