One of the greatest threats to our local forests and wilderness is fire. Natural wildfires produce healthy ecosystems by reducing insect infestations, invasive plants and fuel loads, but years of fire suppression have built up huge supplies of standing and fallen deadwood. Fires in these areas are typically much hotter and more intense than in areas that have been properly managed or where natural wildfires have been allowed. Storms that follow these severe fires are likely to produce high levels of runoff carrying soil, ash and debris. This runoff can take out roads and cause rivers to become silted and tributary streams to back up. Increases in our area’s tent caterpillars and bark and pinon beetles are likely the result of past fire suppression. Drought conditions in recent years are also a concern as they weaken the trees and enable the bugs to thrive. In 2006, our local aspen stands were attacked by the western tent caterpillar. The Mato Vega Fire in June, 2006, burned more than 10,000 acres just over La Veta Pass (about 20 miles west of town), making everyone more aware of the threat from fire.
Up the Cucharas River, about 11 miles south of La Veta, the unincorporated community of Cuchara has about 600 homes, cabins, and condos scattered through the Valley. The summer population may often increase in July to 1000 or more, but the number of year-round residents is significantly less. Cuchara is located at about 8800 feet, in a forest of aspen, pine, spruce and fir. A forest fire in the Cuchara area would directly threaten homes and businesses. The prospects are poor in Cuchara for controlled burns, forest thinning and removal of deadwood, due to the locations of area homes and businesses, the lack of sufficient access roads and lack of funding. The increased risk of fire associated with these conditions will eventually result in increased insurance premiums for residents in Cuchara and its surroundings.
Invasive plants also pose a threat as they compete with naturally occurring flora, diminishing the number and variety of food plants for animals. Locally, these include tamarisk, leafy spurge, bindweed, Russian, spotted, and diffuse knapweeds, several varieties of thistles, hoary cress, and perennial pepperweed. Globally, nearly half of all endangered species are threatened by some kind of invasive species. According to the Ecological Society of America, invasive species pose a threat to 35 to 46 percent of all species listed as endangered. When the invaders compete for food, water and sunlight, the native species die out.
Because of our remote location and low population, our common lands have not been severely impacted by air, water, noise and light pollution. However, circumstances beyond our local control can affect us. For example, toxic pollution from afar can be carried our way by snow or rain. These air- borne pollutants have been proven to interfere with ecological conditions by changing the chemistry in lakes and rivers, contaminating the food supply for aquatic life.
Noise pollution — from airplanes, radios, barking dogs, heavy equipment, chain saws and snowmobiles — is not only an irritant to people enjoying the serenity of the outdoors, but can also interfere with the complex communication systems that wildlife rely on for reproduction and other aspects of survival. Additional sources of noise pollution are the equipment, pumps and vehicular activity associated with natural gas and methane drilling. More noise can also be expected as population and tourism increase.
Two additional threats to our common lands are over-grazing and land disruption associated with natural gas and coal bed methane extraction. There are over 10,000 mineral acres of State Trust Land under lease in Huerfano County, as well as Bureau of Land Management land on Sheep Mt., Little Sheep Mt. and on part of Silver Mtn.
Our lack of a dependable water supply has helped keep our population low, sparing us issues like crowded hiking trails, loss of solitude, and more severe water shortages. Yet people are still attracted to our area, and excessive growth in population and tourism remain a threat. Few permanent residents are opposed to all growth, but many are opposed to rampant growth that would damage our common lands and the quality of our daily living experience. Keeping wilderness areas in a natural state, while letting them be used for recreation, is an ongoing challenge.
Conserving and Protecting Our Water Supply Water is a necessity to our life and wellbeing. Here in the arid west, water is claimed and regulated by the state and managed by municipal water districts. In Colorado, the State claimed ownership of all the water in the streams and aquifers and granted ownership to our forebears who put the water to economic use. Communities, including La Veta, purchased water and developed water treatment and delivery systems, which are owned in common by the town residents who purchase and use town water. The systems are administered by elected town officials, who are responsible for providing adequate safe water for the wellbeing of the people and the community. We also have a district water commissioner.
We are concerned about the quantity, quality and responsible use of water in the Cuchara Valley. The major source of our water supply is the Cucharas River. Rain and snow in the mountains surrounding Cuchara Pass and La Veta Pass flow into the streams and river, filling our reservoirs and recharging our wells.