Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Common ground in the Rio Chama

Building community relationships, even when it’s tough

Brandy Richardson
Rio Chama CFLRP Public Affairs Officer
November 6, 2023

The essence of the Southwest may be summarized in one word – Querencia. A sense of place where one feels safe, at home; where they can draw strength from communities tied to a landscape that provides resources for livelihoods and connections to the land that may not be understood well in other parts of the US.

Aerial view of a vast landscape with roads, rivers, grasslands, farms and forested hillsides.
The Rio Chama Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Project is an ecosystem restoration project that spans 3.8 million acres of forested lands and multiple ownerships in Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado. (USDA Forest Service photo by Preston Keres)

No characteristic rings truer for the communities and landscapes that comprise the Rio Chama Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Project (CFLRP), an ecosystem restoration project that spans 3.8 million acres of forested lands and multiple ownerships in Northern New Mexico and Southern Colorado. It’s here that Tribes, place-based collaboratives, private landowners, the USDA Forest Service, and other federal land managers convene to identify and act on opportunities to work together now and into the future.

Forest and watershed health are terms thrown around frequently, but here, functioning ecosystems are intricately tied to livelihoods for many.

A woman wearing a bright neon green t-shirt, holding a paper with her hand on her chest gesturing with aa smile on her face. Two individuals over each shoulder, standing in the background, listening to her share information.
Dana Guinn is the Southwest Partnership Manager at the Forest Stewards Guild and coordinator for 2-3-2 Partnership (2-3-2), the collaborative that works on the Rio Chama CFLRP. (USDA Forest Service photo by Preston Keres)

“In the American West, public lands are a critical resource to communities of all types, but especially to rural communities,” said Dana Guinn, Southwest Partnership Manager at the Forest Stewards Guild and coordinator for 2-3-2 Partnership (2-3-2), the collaborative that works on the Rio Chama CFLRP.

“Ecosystem services and natural resources on public, private, and tribal lands are big drivers for rural economies and play an important role in community culture,” said Guinn. “As a result, the ways we get involved with and care for the land can make a big difference in our future.”

Two people from different cultures smiling and shaking hands in a crowded recreation room.
Partners meet at the Chama Senior Center in Chama, New Mexico to learn about and discuss the interplay of fire and human history in the Chama, NM area, consider landscape connectivity related to wildlife migration, landscape disturbances and watersheds, understand different management jurisdictions and the tools available to meet management objectives, (USDA Forest Service photo by Preston Keres)

“Having a diversity of voices at the table and creating opportunities to understand many perspectives and needs helps us do right by the landscape and by our neighbors,” said Guinn.

Meeting at the ‘watering hole’

To reach those community voices the Forest Service works with the 2-3-2, a landscape-scale network that brings people together to plan, implement, and monitor forest and watershed work across the Colorado – New Mexico state line. Rio Chama CFLRP funds support regular partnership building, problem solving and collaboration within the 2-3-2 and the impact of these funds is multiplied by the many partners that join together as 2-3-2 members. 2-3-2 meetings function as a ‘watering hole’ where different players gather regularly to build relationships, talk through landscape management challenges and to work towards finding a common ground.

A line of six riders on horseback, photographed from above looking straight down, with their silhouettes reflected on the rocky, brown/orange ground, spotted with small green bushes below their feet.
Tourists ride horseback on the Rio Chama Landscape. (USDA Forest Service photo by Preston Keres)

“The primary goal of our meetings is to get out on the landscape, take a look at things together, and learn from each other,” said Guinn. “It's also a forum where partners can access science and good landscape information then make informed decisions on their own and together.”

Building relationships sounds simple but is not always easy. Underlying complexities exist in the fabric of relationships between the community and the Forest Service due to nineteenth and twentieth century actions. More recent tensions, such as those resulting from the 2022 Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire, an escaped prescribed burn just outside the Rio Chama CFLRP boundary that became New Mexico’s largest wildfire to date, also loom large in the partnership building space and cannot be ignored when learning to work together.

Three men stand with a map spread on the hood of a truck reading a map of the local landscape.
(L to R)) USDA Forest Service Rio Chama CFLRP Coordinator Jeremy Marshall joins Rocky Mountain Youth Corps Seed Tree Crew Leader Chuck Holbert and Seed Crew Member Jude Ansala, with the Zia Pueblo tribe to identify trees with superior seeds used to reforest areas devastated by fire. (USDA Forest Service photo by Preston Keres)

“The ecology, the economy, the monitoring, all of those things are important, but they're not going to fall into place unless people get to know one another and trust each other so we can work together,” said Guinn.

Luis Torres, a native New Mexican, champion for natural resource management, and participant in the 2-3-2 explains that “the lands that the Forest Service manages, they acquired from people who were here before the Forest Service came. There were people here, there were Native Americans and Hispanics. The U.S. government dispossessed those populations of this land”.

As Luis and many other residents recall, beginnings of Forest Service work in New Mexico are rooted in caretaking lands that belonged to others before the agency existed.

A commitment to collaborate is a forever commitment

Acknowledging these sentiments, the Forest Service in the region actively participates in the 2-3-2 and is digging in alongside partners to connect and rebuild trust with these communities. While collaboration cannot undo past injustices, it can help us know one another and the land, and provide a space for moving forward together.

A Native American Man wearing a green polo shirt is standing on the bank of a rocky creek with rustling water next to a white man with a ball cap and short-sleeved shirt, pointing out over green shrubs and trees that have come back after a somewhat recent fire.
Daniel Denipah, Forestry Director Santa Clara Pueblo, shows Jeremy Marshall, Rio Chama CFLRP Coordinator, areas of the reservation that were impacted by a recent fire and is being restored through various programs. (USDA Forest Service photo by Preston Keres)

“The overall impetus for this project is really water conservation. In the dry desert southwest, water is life. It's critical that we work together across watersheds,” said Jermy Marshall, Rio Chama CFLRP Coordinator. “Watersheds much like fire, don't know boundaries.  Our watersheds go through a mosaic of ecosystems across the landscape passing through various land ownerships. Water is what really ties us all together.”

Understanding this, the path forward is further commitment to the collaborative process by agency personnel, community leaders, partner organizations, and landscape residents.

Santa Clara Pueblo is a key 2-3-2 partner and Rio Chama CFLRP participant. Daniel Denipah, Santa Clara Pueblo Forestry Director, explains that important work that restores fire in fire-adapted landscapes is being done on Santa Clara and on ancestral lands managed by the Forest Service. Rio Chama CFLRP dollars and funds leveraged through the CFLRP help with these efforts.

A woman with long sleeves and a baseball cap on stands knee-deep in a small creek, reaching for tree limbs to build a beaver dam, as a man with a hooded gray sweatshirt stands in the background waiting to hand her more tree limbs.
Partners of the project install beaver dam analogs (BDAs) to decrease stream velocity, reduce channelization and sedimentation, and improve cold water habitat by reconnecting the stream with its floodplain and increasing groundwater infiltration and recharge on the Cuba Ranger District of the Santa Fe National Forest. (USDA Forest Service photo by Preston Keres)

“The Pueblo is doing a lot of big thinning projects, and we had a lot of big, prescribed burns - over a thousand acres at a time,” said Denipah. “That’s what tied us [to] our collaborators, was making sure that we had our say and foot in the door when it came to the possibility of funding to come this way to provide Santa Clara that opportunity”.

Getting work done in the Rio Chama CFLRP boundary comes down to building relationships, no matter how challenging.

“The four forest supervisors on the Rio Grande, the San Juan, the Carson and the Santa Fe [National Forests] work together and help guide strategic decision making for the CFLRP,” said Guinn. “There’s a reciprocal kind of back and forth around what's important when and why. While the 2-3-2 convenes people, the line officers and Forest Service staff we work with are also really important connectors in their communities.”

A man wearing a blue long sleeved t-shits with the words “Making a Difference” on the black, stand in an open field with several other people listening to a speaker talk with green mountains in the background and puffy clouds in the sky.
2-3-2 Partnership members gather in a grassy field near Chama, New Mexico to discuss the path forward in managing this diverse, culturally significant, and critical Rio Chama landscape. (USDA Forest Service photo by Preston Keres)

“By and large, the Forest Service is made up of people that care about the landscape and who connect with partners to apply funding to projects that matter,” said Guinn. “Working together with our communities, they're really walking that walk.”

Collaboration is not a one and done, it’s a commitment to reach across the fence, work together and move towards a common ground. Collaboration is a forever commitment.

Editor’s note: Congress created the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program in 2009 to support healthy forests, reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfire, and to support rural communities. The program provides ten years of funding for collaborative, science-based ecosystem restoration projects. As of FY2023, CFLRP has invested in collaborative approaches to restoration in 31 landscapes across the country. More than 650 local businesses, counties, tribal, state, and other federal agencies, utilities companies, NGOs, landowners, and community members have worked together to advance shared goals on the land and in communities.