Forestry Technician on a Mission to Help Lost Visitors in the National Forest
Sam, a Forest Technician with the US Forest Service, is on a mission to save lost hikers and hunters on the Guadalupe Ranger District of the Lincoln National Forest…or at least help them save themselves.
Years ago, Sam sat on the ground eating his sack lunch, thinking about the lost hunter he’d rescued the previous day. It wasn’t the first time a visitor to the National Forest had gotten lost, and he knew it wouldn’t be the last. Over his 30-year career, Sam has come across his fair share of disoriented people. He tells stories of people trying to hike through the Guadalupe Mountains and running out of water or the girlfriend who stormed off after a fight with her boyfriend and got lost in the middle of the night.
The hunter the day before had wandered until he approached the edge of a mesa. Behind him lay more and more mountains. The view from the plateau was beautiful, but the vast emptiness of the landscape was unrelenting. He could see a dirt road at the bottom of the cliff, but there was no way to hike down, and besides, there were no cars on the road. However, the high point had offered him hope, one bar of cell service. He called 911 and was automatically connected to the El Paso, TX Police Department four and a half hours away, who then had to reach the Carlsbad, NM Police Department, who had contacted Sam at the Forest Service.
The Guadalupe Ranger District is the most remote and inhospitable terrain of the Lincoln National Forest, especially in the summer. Temperatures routinely reach into the 100s, and even the beginning of hunting season in September can be harsh. The district is bordered on most sides by a whole lot of nothing. The area is a smattering of public land; Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management, and McGregor Range co-managed by the US Army. The locals described the area saying, “The only thing that outnumbers the scorpions are the rattlesnakes.” Queen, NM, the closest town, was considered a ghost town but recently boasted a population of 50. There are no tall pine trees to offer shade. The most you can hope for in this high desert ecosystem is a large juniper.
The hunter had limited information on where he was. He only knew he was standing near a large water tank near the top of a mesa, commonly known as a trickle tank. There are 54 trickle tanks on the Guadalupe Ranger District and even more on the other public land adjacent to the forest. The hunter could have been at any of them.
However, after decades of working on the same district, Sam thought he knew where the hunter was based on the description of the tank. He and his coworkers loaded up and headed out to rescue the stranded man.
“If he hadn’t had been by that specific trickle tank on that mesa, it would have taken us a lot longer to find him,” Sam said. “He was thankful to see us.”
After the incident, Sam decided to use the tanks to reorient lost visitors. Sam took it upon himself to turn the circular tanks into a giant compass by marking north, south, east, and west on all 54 tanks. Over the years, he also painted most of the trickle tanks with their latitude and longitude coordinates so anyone with a GPS could punch them in and reorient themselves. He wrote the tank's name on the side, so at the very least, visitors could relay the name of the tank, thus cutting down on search and rescue time. Of course, he named one of the tanks Lost Hunter. Then he went a step further, writing general directions back to civilization like “4 miles on closed road” with an arrow pointing in the right direction.
“The trickle tanks are just about the only semi-permanent things out here, and it was the trick tank that had given anyone a fighting chance to find that hunter,” Sam explained. “Now, at least anyone else who is lost can use the tanks to get themselves unlost.”
Trickle tanks provide life-giving water in the arid southwest for wildlife of all types. It’s common to see deer, elk, javelina, birds, bats, and other wildlife utilizing the water collected by the tanks. The tanks collect water in one of two ways. Ground catchments funnel water to a pipe that feeds to a tank or the tank itself has giant “wings” that collect the water. The water is then piped a few meters out to a drinker on the ground. On the Lincoln National Forest, the tanks are a common wildlife habitat improvements and were usually built using Habitat Stamp money.
The New Mexico Habitat Stamp Program is a partnership between sportspersons and federal land management agencies to enhance and conserve wildlife habitat on public lands in New Mexico. Each time a hunter, angler or trapper purchases a license or tag, they must purchase the stamp from the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish (NMDGF). Habitat Stamp sales total approximately $900,000 annually and are used to fund projects to benefit wildlife, watershed health, and public land users throughout New Mexico.
Sam’s long history on the Guadalupe Ranger District means he has had time to see what works and what doesn’t with the tanks.
“Most people stay a few years and move on. They think they have this great idea, and maybe they do, but it takes a long time to see if your idea is working in land management. By that time, most people have moved on…but not me. I’m still here,” said Sam.
Sam began noticing an unusual number of deceased bats around the tank drinkers. The most popular trick tank design has a small oval pool the animals drink from, which is excellent for most wildlife, but dangerous for the well-established bat population living in the hundreds of caves on the Guadalupe Ranger District and nearby National Park. To get water, bats must fly down to the water surface, scoop up a drink and keep flying up and away from the pool – a process that requires an unobstructed “swoop zone,” just like an airplane approaches a runway. Sam has started replacing the oval drinkers with 12-foot long narrow rectangular ones that allow the bats to skim the top of the water and then take off once again.
After 30 years, Sam has done just about every job directly or indirectly on the district; Firefighting, wildlife, forestry, and recreation. He can fix a fence, test the potable water supply at the picnic areas and of course, repair the trickle tanks.