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Businesses that rely on Santa Fe National Forest largely back closure

June 4, 2018 GMT

JEMEZ SPRINGS — The way west out of Los Alamos on N.M. 4 to this artist’s colony, spiritual retreat and recreation destination for frazzled urbanites bears the scars of fires past.

Little wonder that few who make their living serving up cold beers, hot breakfasts or bait and tackle expressed qualms when the U.S. Forest Service closed the surrounding Santa Fe National Forest to public access indefinitely due to extreme fire danger. The temporary closure that started Friday will hurt, but it’s better than the long-lasting effects of a potentially devastating wildfire started by a careless camper, said shopkeepers, innkeepers and restaurateurs Thursday.

“We have a scenic byway, a national forest and two national monuments; these are big things to have consolidated in one area, and they’re awesome,” said Chris Blecha, manager of Amanda’s Country Store at La Cueva Lodge, a source for ice, cold drinks, flip-flops, straw hats and fishing poles at the intersection of N.M. 4 and N.M. 126. “The closure is necessary to protect the resource.”

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From the west side of the forest to the east, shutting off public access to its 1.6 million acres means no hiking, biking, soaking in hot springs or access to popular public fishing spots along the Pecos and Jemez rivers, among others. The forest is off limits until rains deliver “significant moisture,” according to the Forest Service. The June outlook from the National Weather Service shows an early start to the monsoon season in late June, but below average rainfall after that.

The forest closure also means a dent in sales at Amanda’s and closed doors at the Tererro General Store, a supply station for campers in the forest along the Pecos River. The two businesses lie 210 miles apart on opposite sides of the national forest.

“We’re fully engaged in the fact we’re more than likely going to close,” said Tererro owner Huie Ley on Thursday. “We braced for it; we got ready for it. We’ve lived through it.”

Visits by anyone traveling more than 50 miles to Santa Fe National Forest generated $40.3 million in spending in 2014, according to a June 2016 Forest Service report. That broke down into $11 million in lodging, $7 million at restaurants, $5.5 million for groceries and $3.2 million on souvenirs and sporting goods. Taking locals into account, the forest that year generated more than $65 million in spending by visitors.

About 75 percent of summer business at Amanda’s store comes from recreational traffic generated by the forest, its nearby campgrounds and fishing streams, Blecha said. Nonetheless, the forest closure was anticipated, he said, if not welcomed.

“The locals are for it. We’ve had challenges in the past,” he said.

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In Jemez Springs, nine miles from Amanda’s, Mayor Roger Sweet said a choice between reduced business in the village during a month or two of forest closure versus a potentially catastrophic wildfire that threatens homes and businesses is a no-brainer.

“The forest closure is a good thing,” he said. “We don’t want it, but we understand the implications of it.”

The message from Sweet, who runs Casa Blanca, a guesthouse and a guest cottage, and from other village businesses is that the surrounding national forest may be closed, but the village of 250 people is definitely open. The nearby Forest Service campgrounds, scenic areas and the Jemez River, which runs through the village, may draw scores of visitors, but hot springs are what the town is known for.

“A lot of people find Jemez Springs because they’re Googling hot springs,” Sweet said.

Popular, freely accessible hot springs in the forest — Spence Hot Springs, McCauley Hot Springs and San Antonio Hot Springs — will be off limits, but the Jemez Springs Bath House, a publicly owned, for-profit village centerpiece, is still open, as is is Jemez Hot Springs, a four-pool, privately owned business in the center of town.

“I have guests who come just for the bath house,” Sweet said.

At Jemez Hot Springs, co-owner Tanya Struble said she would probably discount day and half-day passes during the forest closure. Local businesses up and down the Jemez River valley plan on meeting Tuesday to discuss ways to counter the closure and advertise and promote village businesses.

“We’ll all band together and put it out there: We’re open for business and everyone’s welcome,” Struble said.

Across the highway at Los Ojos Restaurant and Saloon, owner Brian Appell voiced dissent. A heavy slab of door opens into a dimly lit bar. The eyes adjust to take in families dining in booths beneath the hides of cinnamon bears flat on the walls above them. The centerpiece is a massive, mounted head of a 12-tine trophy elk.

“I understand the closing, but enforcement of the forest rules [regarding campfires] is more important than limiting access by Americans to their national forests,” Appell said by phone.

Bruce Hill, spokesman for Santa Fe National Forest, said the enforcement issue is a frustrating one. While Forest Service rangers have written citations for open burning, many of the campfires reported to the Forest Service or discovered by rangers were abandoned. The New Mexican reported Wednesday that rangers discovered 84 abandoned campfires across the forest on Memorial Day weekend alone, despite a campfire ban being in place since May 7. That number was the talk Thursday of the Jemez River valley.

“The people that built those campfires are long gone by the time we find out,” Hill said.

He said memories still burn from the Las Conchas Fire, which started June 26, 2011, in the Jemez Mountains near Los Alamos, east of Jemez Springs, and scorched more than 156,000 acres, including parts of Bandelier National Monument, before firefighters contained it 1½ months later.

“What we saw at Las Conchas was devastating; there are still places unsafe to get back into,” Hill said. “Imagine a high-severity fire in an area that businesses rely upon, and where you’d possibly never be able to go back into those areas in your lifetime, versus a proactive closure based on the extreme fire danger that we’re experiencing at historic levels.”

In Santa Fe, business people who rely on the forest expect to take a hit but have options to help them survive the month or two of closure before the expected monsoon.

Wes Dyer, a contract guide for Reel Life, a fly-fishing shop, said the forest closure will add travel costs to his service.

“It does take the Pecos [River] away from us, which is always a good destination for us,” he said Wednesday. “Yeah, it is pretty detrimental, especially when the Jemez [River] shuts down. We’re having to take folks up to Colorado to find fish.

“We just have to adapt and overcome. I wouldn’t think we lose business over it, but we’ll have to be a little creative where we fish people.”

At the Mellow Velo bicycle shop, manager Matt Donovan said he expected a decline in mountain bike rentals as nearby forest trails are off limits. That’s disappointing, given that revenue is up this year over last, so far. But the shop also rents town and road bikes, along with sales and service.

“We’ll keep our fingers crossed for a good monsoon season,” he said Wednesday.

Back in Jemez Springs, the local version of a lounge singer backed by an electric piano warmed up at noon Thursday on the patio deck outside the Jemez Stage Stop Cafe. A rooster in a pen next door added its voice to a rendition of “California Dreamin’ ” while a speckled trout lazed in the acequia flowing in front of the cafe. As elsewhere in the village, the employees were talking about the campfires left burning in the woods, the forest closure and how long it might last.

“Everybody’s worried and scared either way,” said food server Connie Garate.

Owner Michael Farber said visitors still have options, but the village runs at its own pace even in boom times.

“It’s pretty slow around here,” he said. “I can’t imagine how much slower it can be. Come out swinging is the best I can do.”