The History of Philmont’s Conservation Department

Baldy Town 1910

Baldy Town 2009

During the last 200 years, Philmont has been subject to all manner of ranching, resource extraction and recreational activities. Each activity altered the landscape in its own way. Hard rock and hydraulic mining forever changed the shapes of many of our high peaks and steep-walled canyons. Intense clear cutting in the early 1900s resulted in the dense, even-aged batches of Ponderosa Pine found across the ranch. A century of wildfire suppression left the forest floor covered in a thick layer of litter and debris.

Following the gift of the Ranch by Waite Philips, early settler and mining routes provided the only access into what was very much a wild place. Waite had developed trails that gave easy access to some of his favorite places, including the Rayado Lodge (now known as Fish Camp), the Tooth of Time and Hunting Lodge, but most other hiking routes were little more than paths through the forest worn in by the horses and boots of ranchers and trappers.

In 1965, a catastrophic flood washed down Rayado Canyon. The once beautiful trail along the Rayado River between Abreu and Fish Camp was destroyed. The route would remain closed for almost a decade as Philmont’s managers learned about trail design and construction techniques that could handle rapidly rising camper numbers.

1976 Conservation Staff Photo

Roving trail crews began operation shortly after the big flood. These crews installed trail signs and cleared corridors along major trails. They laid the groundwork for the modern trail system enjoyed today.

The Conservation Department became its own entity in 1971. With only a dozen or so staff members, it took up the mantle of maintaining and expanding Philmont’s trail and camp system. One of the first trail construction projects was the Rayado Canyon trail that still exists today. If you take a hike up this trail, you can witness the amazing views that would be unobtainable without these early conservation pioneers.

During the 1980s and 1990s, trail construction continued and many improvements were made to campsite infrastructure. Rock fire rings were gradually replaced with metal fire rings. Sumps evolved from 55 gallon barrels to five-gallon buckets to the now ubiquitous drain pipe fittings. Conservation-focused treks soon developed; the 28-day Trail Crew took its place as the longest individual program on the ranch, and later the Order of the Arrow Trail Crew was born.

We have seen even more changes during the last decade. The Roving Outdoor Conservation School was conceived and, even though the 28-day Trail Crew disappeared, there is now the brand new individual program, Trail Crew Trek, which
provides youth with coed conservation training. Our staff now includes Geographic Information Systems technicians who produce Philmont’s entire sectional, overall and campsite maps. They also maintain an extensive library of spatial data that are used for planning projects across the Ranch. In just the past few years, nearly every sump has been upgraded by the addition of a rubberneck. The Ponil Complex Fire of 2002 spurred the largest revegetation project in our history. We are also working on continuing meadow encroachment, erosion reduction and trout habitat restoration projects.

No matter how large or how strange the project we take on for the betterment of Philmont Scout Ranch, we will steadfastly remain the Department of Conservation!