The Nambé Badlands and the Sombrillo Area of Critical Environmental Concern
Aerial photograph of the Nambé Badlands looking northeast (2017). NM 503, “The High Road to Taos”, is the two-lane highway seen in this photo. The Sangre de Cristo mountains are seen in the distance. The Nambé Badlands are shaped from alluvial deposits and runoff from the Sangre de Cristo.
This map shows the property ownership in and around the Nambé Badlands. Trails as of 2011 used by hikers, equestrians, and mountain bikers are shown in green; blue trails indicate trails primarily used by hikers. Details on these trails can be found here.
One of the key features of this landscape is fragile cryptobiotic soil crusts over the soft and sandy soils. These cryptobiotic (crypto = hidden, biota = living) crusts protect the arid desert landscape from massive erosion due to wind and water runoff.
The land in the Nambe Badlands is highly erosive compared with most semi-arid landscapes. Underneath the fragile cryptobiotic crusts that are widespread in the Nambe Badlands are poorly consolidated sands and fine-textured silty soils with a flour-like consistency. These soils cannot support the weight of a human or bicycle without being compressed and displaced. Every footstep breaks up the cryptobiotic crusts and leaves a permanent scar, with the fine powder soil then exposed to the erosive elements of water, wind, and freeze-thaw processes. Trails also concentrate water flows, thereby greatly amplifying soil erosion.
Thus travel in the Nambe Badlands has the potential to greatly damage these extensive cryptobiotic crusts and underlying fine-textured soils. In many other semi-desert environments, the percentage of ground covered by fragile cryptobiotic crusts and easily eroded soils is lower than in the Nambe Badlands, such as in the Moab area where extensive exposures of hard sandstone bedrock allow for travel with less harmful impacts. Unfortunately, that is not the case in the Nambé Badlands.
Cryptobiotic soil crust in the Nambé Badlands. These crusts are alive with cyanobacteria, as well as lichen, moss, fungi, and other bacteria. They hold the soil together and prevent massive erosion from wind and water runoff.
Cryptobiotic soil crusts are not the only fragile resource in the Nambé Badlands. The geology of Nambé Badlands is a critical resource to paleontologists due to significant finds of vertebrate fossils from the Miocene Epoch (23 – 5.3 million years ago) in the Tesuque Formation (conglomerate, mudstone, sandstone, and other sedimentary layers). Famous paleontologists, like Edward Drinker Cope, have discovered new (extinct) species of mammals from fossil finds in the Nambé Badlands. The area was first explored by paleontologists like Cope in 1874 when he discovered 32 new species.
Because the Nambé Badlands is so rich in Miocene fossilsVertebrate Paleontology in New Mexico, New Mexico Museum of Natural History & Science, 2015, Bulletin 68, page 163, it was designated as the Sombrillo Area of Critical Environmental Concern (ACEC) in 1988. The BLM Sombrillo ACEC covers the BLM land on the west side of NM 503.
Read more about the fossil records in the Nambé Badlands here.