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  • Sarah Wettemann

Philmont leadership explores reopening additional parts of Ute Park Burn Scar

August 8, 2022 — The goal of Philmont has always been to provide participants with outdoor adventures at the highest level. In order to do so, ranch management has to mitigate risks and ensure the safety of people on all corners of the ranch. After the Ute Park Fire devastated Philmont’s central country in 2018, much of the land has remained closed to campers due to high flood, erosion and falling tree risks and allowing the land to recover.

A trail lies unused and lined by burned trees on the side of Deer Lake Mesa on July 31, 2022, at Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, N.M. Photo by Sarah Wettemann.

Not using the land was the safest option but put a lot of stress on the usable land in the North and South country due to increased traffic.

“We need to spread out the use and give the land time to recover, put more focus on being good stewards of the land we were gifted,” said Ben Harper, Philmont’s conservation field manager.

In 2021, Philmont introduced a guided hike between Cimarroncita and Sawmill in order to move crews from north to south country. The guided hike was a temporary solution, according to Steve Nelson, Director of Camping. Now, the ranch is exploring additional routes for moving crews from one side of the ranch to the other.

“[Cimarroncita and Sawmill] have been doing the guided hike as an opportunity to get Scouts north to south,” Nelson said. “Something that we have to look at is to see where routes are going to be, how we hike people through there and if we need special safety precautions going through there.”

Philmont leadership is investigating potentially reopening the area between Turkey Creek and Deer Lake Mesa, including Harlan and Vaca camps. Due to geographical features and water accessibility, they provide the best opportunities for areas to reopen.

“The area around Harlan, there’s all those massive meadows there,” Harper said. “So Harlan and Vaca are not really eroding anymore. We can snag it out, and it’s pretty safe up there. Devil’s Wash Basin and Deer Lake are a similar situation.”

Conservation staff work to build trail around Harlan trail camp on July 31, 2022, at Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, N.M. After additional conservation work and restoration is complete, Harlan may be able to open to Scouts going on trek in summer of 2023. Photo by Marielle Scott.

One of the largest hazards that crews would face hiking through the area is dead trees falling. The windstorm that hit the ranch this past winter knocked over a significant number of them. As work continues in the area, fall and winter conservation crews will prioritize felling hazardous trees to create a safety corridor for crews to be able to hike through, in addition to opening campsites.

The other major concern is water availability throughout the burn scar area. A lot of the previously established springs have potentially been impacted by the fire and the erosion that has occurred as a result.

“There are springs that are still viable, along the Bench going into Cimarroncita. We can still make that a good place to hike and still have water because that’s a long ways to go if you don’t,” Nelson said. “Resource evaluation has to happen before we say yeah, we’re going to put this in itineraries.”

In prelude to looking at future uses, Philmont Scout Ranch hiked two Order of the Arrow Trail Crew treks through Harlan and Turkey Creek in order to assess the area.

“We were hiking along the [trail from Turkey Creek ridge] to see what the trail looked like and for the most part it looks really nice,” said Michael Colletti, OATC Foreman. “No one has hiked there in a couple years, so it was really overgrown because there’s nothing to hold the water back, so there are runoffs everywhere and we kept losing the trail. That was the worst part, up by Turkey Creek Ridge.”

A Conservation work crew member clears grass and leaves off an overgrown trail on the side of Deer Lake Mesa on July 31, 2022, at Philmont Scout Ranch in Cimarron, N.M. Photo by Sarah Wettemann.

Despite some areas within the Ute Park burn scar being safe to potentially reopen, there are other areas that may remain untouched for decades to come.

“The risk mitigation is pretty easy. You just stay out of the bottom of canyons where you know it’s going to flood,” Harper said. “Like Grouse Canyon and Sawmill Canyon, I have no interest in going there for 20 years.”

Philmont prioritizes being good stewards of the land. That comes in the form of prescribed burns, active forestry work and resting the land when necessary in order to provide participants with unforgettable wilderness adventures for years to come.

“As wise land managers and stewards of the land, we have to be able to look and say we close whatever camp for three, four, five, years,” Nelson said. “That’s the majority of decision making, when it comes to using any land out there, burn scar or not, is being wise stewards of it.”

While Harlan and other areas in the burn scar are being assessed, there is no timeline for programming or usage. The Ute Park burn scar remains closed and off-limits.

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