By KAY MATTHEWS
The proposed Southwest Jemez Mountains Restoration Project (SJMRP) is off to a rocky start and we’re just through the scoping period. Several letters to the editor in the Santa Fe New Mexican referenced Santa Fe National Forest (SFNF) fuels specialist Bill Armstrong calling ponderosa pine trees “weeds” and that we need to “get rid of 95 percent of them.” Armstrong, who has been with the SFNF longer than any forester I can think of, has often put his foot in his mouth over the years, but he’s also credited with lobbying for desperately needed thinning in the Jemez since the 1990s.
Theoretically, considering what’s happened to the Jemez Mountains over the past few decades it’s hard to understand why anyone would oppose a rigorous management plan of thinning, prescribed burning, and watershed restoration, which is what the SJMRP proposes. In practice, of course, it was a prescribed burn at Bandelier National Monument that started the Cerro Grande fire. You can also question United States Forest Service (USFS) policies that helped create monolithic tinderboxes like the Jemez, and why the service is now dependent upon special funding to do the work that local loggers could have done to keep their businesses alive. Instead we have a long history of crown fires that have burned through this range and threatened Los Alamos National Laboratory: the 1954 Water Canyon fire of approximately 5,000 acres that forced the first evacuation of Los Alamos; the 1977, 15,000-acre La Mesa fire; the 1996, 16,000-acre Dome fire; the 2000 Cerro Grande fire, which burned 43,000 acres and forced another evacuation; and the 156,000-acre Las Conchas fire, then the largest fire to date that also forced evacuations at Los Alamos and Santa Clara Pueblo (the 2012 Whitewater-Baldy fire in the Gila broke that record).
The SJMRP was among ten nationwide projects selected by the United States Department of Agriculture (the United States Forest Service is part of the USDA) in 2010 for funding under the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (CFLRP), not to be confused with the Collaborative Forest Restoration Program that has funded numerous local forest related projects over the past 11 years in all the forests of New Mexico.
Thirty-five million dollars of the estimated $80 million cost of the SJMRP will be funded by CFLRP over the next 10 years; the rest will be underwritten by regularly appropriated USFS funds, other grants, and possible service contributions (more on this later). The project is being fast tracked: the scoping period for the project ends on August 13; a draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) is scheduled for April 2013, a Record of Decision for August of 2013.
The project proposes to thin trees on 90,000 acres and use prescribed fire on 76,000 acres within the Jemez Ranger District and the Valles Calera Preserve. Portions of Bandelier National Monument, Santa Clara, and Jemez Pueblos are also included. Most of the thinning is proposed for the ponderosa pine forests, but mixed conifer, piñon/juniper, and aspen are also slated for treatment. Site specific methods will be used: chainsaws, mechanized equipment, or whole-tree mastication. Wood removal techniques will also be site specific: firewood sales, commercial harvest, and prescribed burning. The ponderosa pine will be thinned to establish groups of trees between 4 and 20 trees to a stand (the mixed conifer thinning is similar to this prescription). Riparian areas throughout the project area will be treated by various methods: planting of native plants; streambank stabilization; repair of degraded trails and campsites; treatment of headcuts; and protections of meadow habitat. Wildlife habitat and archeological site protection and improvements are also included in the project.
At the public hearing at SFNF headquarters on August 2, Forest Service personnel devoted most of their presentation to prescribed burning and the methods of tree thinning and removal, always the most controversial components of a project like this. The fire management specialist carefully went over the procedures that have been developed since the Cerro Grande fire to prevent another conflagration of that magnitude. The Interagency Prescribed Fire Planning Document is their Bible, from which they run computer modeling based on temperature, humidity, wind speed and direction, and smoke dispersion.
Where there’s fire there’s smoke, of course. A planning section chief from the New Mexico Environment Department’s Air Quality Bureau was at the meeting to talk about the risks to public health and visibility that may result from prescribed burning. What is called “fine particulate matter” has the most impact on the public, particularly those with respiratory problems and young children. The smoke from the Wallow Fire, which burned last year in Arizona, 150 miles away from Albuquerque, exceeded health standards for seven days with a 200 fine particulate count in the city. The smoke from last year’s Las Conchas fire had a count of 1,000 in Albuquerque. The Forest Service air quality control specialist at the meeting stressed that managers strive for a prescribed burn that will send the smoke straight up into the air where it is then dispersed at a higher elevation.
Several of the New Mexican letters raised the specter of, oh my God, “commercial logging” as a method of tree thinning and removal. What the USFS actually has in mind acknowledges that there are almost no commercial loggers left in New Mexico, that there’s no market for small timber, and since CFLRP is footing most of the bill the Forest Service can hope for an “even trade”: through stewardship contracts the Forest Service will exchange goods for services. The bidding contractor can determine the value the wood they can use and trade that against what they would have charged to thin the smaller trees that they can’t use. According to the silviculturist at the meeting, the goal for the Forest Service is to pay “next to nothing.” Of the acres slated for thinning, about half have harvest potential. Other methods will include firewood sales, service contracts (thinning), and prescribed burning on very small diameter trees.
As the silviculturist so eloquently—with his tongue in cheek—put it, “We are getting behinder and behinder” in the race to thin and burn the hundreds of thousands of acres in the SFNF that need treatment. Today the Forest Service is mechanically treating 3,000 acres a year and burning 10,000 to 13,000 acres. According to the forester, ponderosa pine forest should burn every seven years or so; there are thousands of acres that haven’t burned in a hundred years.
Although the scoping period just ended, there will be opportunity for public comment when the DEIS is released, supposedly next April. It remains to be seen if the SFNF can compress the National Environmental Policy (NEPA) work that usually takes three years on a project of this magnitude into the projected one-year timeline. While some project areas are already NEPA ready (archeological, wildlife, and other resource clearances), many more must be analyzed and approved within this short time frame. La Jicarita will follow this project as it progresses through the NEPA requirements towards some actual work on the ground.