By KAY MATTHEWS
Over the last several months a series of articles and comments in La Jicarita have revealed how controversial—and confused—the concept of forest restoration is in the 2000s. It appears that this lack of consensus as to how, or if, forests can be restored exists in the scientific community as well. In a recent High Country News article Emily Guerin talks about the two schools of thought that currently have purchase in that community: (1) the traditional, or “Southwest model” that believes with the use of thinning and prescriptive fire land managers can mimic the former ponderosa pine forests where low intensity fire kept the forests open and park-like; and (2) a recent study of both mixed conifer and ponderosa forests in northern Arizona, Colorado, and eastern Oregon that claims densely thicketed forests and severe crown fires were common before European settlement.
Here in the southwest, forest experts like Craig Allen, with the United States Geological Survey (USGS) in Los Alamos, and Tom Swetnam of the University of Arizona, have advocated for management to replicate former ponderosa forest conditions; they’ve spent a lot of time studying the effects of drought and fires on southwest forests and see the drought and megafires of the past decades as threats to the ability of these forests to regenerate. The scientists quoted in the High Country News article, Mark Williams and Bill Baker, believe that fires like Arizona’s 2002 Rodeo-Chediski fire, which burned 190,000 acres, are historically not that unusual, and that thinning and prescribed burning, “applied in the wrong places,” can cause further degradation.
The article acknowledges that most scientists agree the ponderosa model does not necessarily lend itself to other kinds of forest types around the west, but the controversy does make clear that as in many other areas of “science” there are always new findings and new interpretations that are put forward, debated, and abandoned as unsupportable or adopted as gospel. When norteño forest plans were being promulgated in the 1980s and 90s, environmentalists, communities, and forest planners had very different ideas about what constituted the best science when it came to logging prescriptions and grazing practices.
In her blog Xylem Up forester Kitt Jennings has this to say about those arguments: “Once upon a time I think it was beneficial for land managers and environmental groups to be at odds because both sides needed the temperance and perspective.” But she goes on to lament that the many lawsuits filed by these environmental groups, and the general public’s skepticism about the use of prescribed fire as a management tool, have contributed to the inability of land managers to manage anything.
There is certainly no consensus on how to manage the forests of New Mexico. It’s almost a Catch 22: we can’t agree on what our management goals might be because no one can agree what constitutes a healthy forest in the first place. Even worse, management goals, if we could agree upon them, are constrained by environmental conditions. In the Jemez Mountains a succession of disastrous fires burned large stands of trees where now only the shrubs and bushes favored by drought conditions have taken hold. In an article dealing with forest restoration in Nature Magazine, “Forest Fires: Burnout,” author Michelle Nijhuis quotes scientists predicting that forests throughout the west, devastated by crown fires, will never regenerate but remain as grass and shrub lands for centuries.
Have we reached the point where all we can do is try to prevent more catastrophic wildfires and let these forests shift in ways that don’t completely compromise the ecology and the need for community forest products? Foresters like Allen have lobbied for thinning and prescribed burning on a large scale—tens of thousands of acres—but nowhere near that amount of work has yet been done. The Jemez Mountain Restoration Project proposes to treat 90,000 acres over a 10-year period, but the plan has already met opposition from the public over both thinning, by those who use the word “commercial” thinning as a scare tactic, and fire, where the USFS and Park Service admittedly have a poor record.
Another option is to let drought determine the prescription by building what Allen calls a “bridge to the future” (Nijhuis, “Forest Fires: Burnout”), actively managing for the movement of tree types from lower elevations to higher elevations as warming temperatures change life zones. Foresters and scientists in other parts of the country have already acceded to this idea, particularly in areas closer to urban centers.
A project like the Rio Trampas Watershed Forest Restoration Plan (see La Jicarita article) is relatively small—10,000 acres—compared to the Jemez Project, but considering that it primarily targets wildland/village interfaces in the watershed, is needed and doable. El Valle, one of the targeted areas in the Trampas Plan, exemplifies the contrast between treated and untreated forest lands (see photo below). For more than 10 years now the Camino Real Ranger District of Carson National Forest has been issuing Contract Stewardship blocks to individuals to provide firewood. The blocks are in areas adjacent to villages that particularly need treatment and consist of approximately one-acre sections that are marked for thinning: the “leave” trees are actually the ones marked, while the contractor is responsible for cutting everything else, the dog hair thickets as well as firewood size trees. Prescriptions for the blocks are designed to favor the dominant tree—ponderosa, piñon, or juniper—with a scattered diversity of other types that are present. After the individual blocks have been thinned, the Forest Service comes in and burns the detritus. The El Valle areas targeted in the Trampas Watershed Plan have not been thinned in the Contract Stewardship program or in other thinning projects and are filled with dense, spindly, even-aged trees susceptible to both wildfire and disease. Again, the Contract Stewardship program has only targeted a small percentage of the forests that need to be treated, but combined with the Trampas plan will go a long way towards protecting norteño villages, providing firewood, and improving watershed conditions.