More than 70 to 80 percent of the mature spruce, fir and aspen have died in the area that sits at approximately 9,800 feet and about 12 miles northeast of Canjilón in Río Arriba County, according the U.S. Forest Service.
The die-off became so dangerous the Forest Service decided to close the campground to the public while managers figured out how to help the forest come back from such stresses.
In 2010, a large aspen tree fell on a fisherman next to one of the lakes, hurting but not killing him. An aspen fell on a large truck the next year. Yet another aspen fell on a tent, which was unoccupied at the time.
"The priority of the safety and health of the public and my employees is of utmost importance," said Canjilón District Ranger Alicia Gallegos.
The die-off is the result of a combination of ecological offenders, including drought, diseases and insects. But the latter two tree-troubling problems only caused as much damage as they did because of more than half a century of human activity in the area, according to forest officials.
The Canjilón Lakes campground opened in 1948. At the time, the aspens and other trees were healthy. The robust forests paired with fishing led to a lot of traffic from campers, anglers and other recreational users, according to Lora Arciniega, silviculturist with the El Rito Ranger District of the Carson National Forest. The aspen began to suffer from human traffic.
"The main culprit is carving and damage to the aspen trees," Arciniega said.
Arborglyphs, the official name for initials, names, dates and doodles carved into the soft bark of aspens, open up wounds in the trees. Trees are also hurt by trucks scraping against the bark or a an ax cut. And as with a cut in human flesh, spores in the environment take advantage of the open wound in tree bark.
"That led to really prolific fungal diseases" in the 1980s, she said.
The sooty bark canker begins as a sunken patch of dead bark on the aspen and can kill a tree within three to 10 years. Sooty bark canker is the single biggest killer of aspens in the Rocky Mountains.
The Cytospora canker is a fungal disease that is similarly fatal, but shows up as an orange marking like paint.
While those two diseases are the major reasons for the die-off, so are the sustained presence of the western tent caterpillar and western spruce budworm, which forest managers started to notice in large concentrations about 15 years ago, Arciniega said.
Both bugs defoliate trees and leave dense webs in their branches. Their numbers can get so huge that as someone walks through an affected part of the forest, the caterpillars rain down to the point that they're unavoidable.
But neither bug is invasive. In fact, both are part of the natural cycle of regeneration for forests. They create snags for wildlife and "are a way for these stands to self-regulate," Arciniega said.
The issue is when they return to the same area season after season.
And that's exactly what happened, likely because of the other stresses on the forest.
"You walk up there and almost every one of those aspen trees have some sort of marking on them," Arciniega said. Together with the New Mexico Department of Game and Fish, the Forest Service started in on the hard work of removing all the dead trees from the forest.
A contractor worked between last spring and the first snowfall of autumn to cut all the dead and dying trees that were about to fall or would likely do so within five years. The treated patches of forest, where some live healthy trees remain standing, came out to 150 acres.
Once the snow melts, contractors will move all the dead trees into accessible areas, where wood gatherers will eventually have access to harvest them.
Aspens, bound by a common root system, love disturbance, so the forest is slowly showing signs of recovery.