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The Wetland Jewels of the Carson National Forest

Last Sunday, my kids and I left our car by the side of a dirt road and walked out and over one of our favorite meadows: Ponil Park in the Valle Vidal unit of the Carson National Forest. “It’s like a sponge!” shouted my son. And then he squished himself down into the watery muck until his ankles were wet. He is a water child. He can’t ever stay dry. He is fascinated by everything and anything to do with water. My daughter walked away, trying to get a little more peace and quite so she could look at all the butterflies floating above the wetland. It didn’t take long until she had three of them sitting in her palm.

conservation photography
Ponil Park in the McCrystal Wetland Jewel


Rachel Conn of the Taos, New Mexico-based environmental group Amigos Bravos describes the high altitude wetlands of the Carson as both sponge and kidney:

Wetlands are often called the “kidneys of the landscape” because of their functions as receivers of water and waste from natural and human sources. They have many attributes that help improve water quality:

  1. Reduction of the speed of the water entering a wetlands allows sediments and chemicals in the sediments to drop out of the water column.
  2. Anaerobic and aerobic processes that occur in wetlands promote denitrification, chemical precipitation and other chemical reactions that remove certain chemicals from the water
  3. High rates of mineral uptake by wetland vegetation, along with a high rate of burial in sediments when the plants die
  4. High diversity of decomposers and decomposition processes
  5. Large areas of shallow water leading to significant sediment-water exchange
  6. Accumulation of peat that allows for the permanent burial of chemicals


conservation photography
Midnight Meadows Wetland Jewel


Over the past year, Amigos Bravos and the Western Environmental Law Center (WELC) have been identifying key wetlands in both the Carson and Santa Fe National Forests of northern New Mexico. These wetlands perform a variety of functions from boosting and sustaining flows in regional streams and acequias to alleviating flooding, recharge groundwater aquifers, absorb outsized amounts of carbon from the atmosphere, boost biodiversity and wildlife habitat and add a layer of resiliency to an ecosystem in the face of climate change.

In the Carson National Forest Amigos Bravos and WELC have zeroed in on eight of these wetlands as vitally important to the regional water system in northern New Mexico. I was asked to visit these jewels and document them both photographically and by writing detailed descriptions. So other than a ten day break to go on the Wild Road expedition I will be documenting these wetland jewels until the snow flies. This is the very reason I became a conservation photographer.

conservation photography
La Jara Wetland Gem

Rachel Conn:

New Mexico is the fifth-largest U.S. state, totaling an area of 122,000 square miles. However, less than 1 percent of these lands—482,000 acres—is covered in wetlands and riparian areas. This is over one-third less than the 720,000 acres of New Mexican wetlands that existed in the 1780s.


Many wetlands in our headwaters are suffering. Impacts from climate change, roads, off-road vehicle use and ungulate grazing—cows, deer and elk—all contribute to wetland degradation. These stressors cause erosion in the form of headcuts and channelization that result in the draining of these wetland systems. As a result, many of the wetlands in the Santa Fe and Carson national forests are drying up and are encroached upon by dry-land woody species. As wetlands dry up, they lose their ability to act as sponges and no longer provide the myriad of ecosystems services such as wildlife habitat, stream-flow maintenance and flood control.

conservation photography
Serpent Lake Wetland Gem. Pecos Wilderness.


Back in the Valle Vidal the kids and I crossed a long, gravel forest road and dropped into Whitman Vega to make our way up McCrystal Creek. Near the ponderosa pines were sign that several bison had recently been in the area.  Everywhere were standing seedpods of the native iris that grows in the wetlands and when you touch them the the actual seeds rattle in the pods and it sounds quite like a rattlesnake, making us a little more cautious. We jumped back and forth across the creek dozens of times playing like Follow the Leader, until my son spotted movement in the water. Fish. Small native Cutthroat trout I believe. They darted up and down the watercourse seeking the shade and the deeper pools and we laid in the grass and hung our heads out over the water to watch them.

If you’re interested in where these jewels are located take a look at this pdf. I’d encourage you to both visit these publicly-owned wetlands and contact Amigos Bravos about how you can help ensure the protection of these vital ecosystems.

So. That is what I am up to this fall. Heads up over the coming days for reports from the Wild Road and soon an announcement about an April photo tour I will be leading to Cuba with Espiritu Travel! Spaces will be limited so contact me soon if you’re interested.

conservation photography
Serpent Lake Wetland Gem. Pecos Wilderness.



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