By KAY MATTHEWS
The schizophrenic fire management policy of the United States Forest Service (USFS) has come full circle. For almost a century the agency has been suppressing all fires regardless of origin—lightning or human caused. This, of course, has resulted in overgrown, monolithic forests and catastrophic fires that have devastated ecosystems and communities within and adjacent to them. Slowly, over the course of several decades, USFS policy changed to allow certain fires, primarily in wilderness areas where communities were not threatened, to burn under “monitoring” supervision. The Gila National Forest in southern New Mexico, where the largest fire in the state’s history, the Whitewater-Baldy, burned approximately 300,000 acres this summer, had employed this policy since the 1970s. Now, however, the USFS claims that it costs too much money to “let” fires burn under agency supervision over weeks at a time; it’s cheaper to snuff out every single fire no matter the size or location. Once again we’re back to a total fire suppression directive except for fires that are deemed too dangerous to fight. The Forest Service says this is “temporary,” but it seems that coupled with historical logging practices—clear cutting and even-aged management—that have contributed to this sorry state of affairs in our national forests, we will never get ahead of the curve. Currently, half of the USFS budget goes towards fighting fire.
La Jicarita News documented many of the struggles over forestry practices in northern New Mexico in the 1990s and early 2000s: the extreme Zero Cut position—no logging on public lands—of urban environmental groups like Forest Guardians; lawsuits that made it impossible for community based loggers to even get thinning contracts; USFS inability to get the National Environmental Policy (NEPA) clearances done for community based logging and prescribed burning; and the in-fighting among community groups for the spoils.
Today, there is essentially no commercial logging in northern New Mexico’s forests but “restoration” projects that combine thinning, prescribed burning, and riparian rehabilitation and are funded by special projects outside the USFS budget. In researching and writing about the largest of the projects, the Southwest Jemez Mountains Restoration Project (SJMRP), I found that the reactions to the projects by public organizations involved in forest issues are just as contradictory as that of the Forest Service’s fire policy. I’d like to take a look at how the SJMRP project, and two projects funded by the Collaborative Forest Restoration Program (CFRP) have elicited contentious debate over restoration tactics. The three projects are: the SJMRP, funded by the Collaborative Forest Landscape Program, a 10-year, $35 million thinning/burning/and riparian rehabilitation project; Forest Guild’s Rio Trampas Watershed Forest Restoration planning grant to conduct NEPA analysis on 10,000 acres of USFS, Bureau of Land Management, Picuris Pueblo, and State lands within that watershed; and another CFRP planning proposal by the Las Huertas Land Grant to thin the north end of the Sandia Mountains near Placitas. The Sandia situation is complicated by the Sandia Mountain Wilderness, which comprises 37,877acres and is closed to any mechanized activity. A fire in the wilderness could easily reach the piñon/juniper forests surrounding Placitas and hugely impact the watershed, and this is where the land grant wants to focus its efforts.
During the scoping period for the Jemez project, Jan Boyer of Once a Forest, “a group dedicated to educating the public about forest issues,” wrote an op-ed in the Santa Fe New Mexican claiming the project will turn the “forests into meadows,” will remove “62,680 acres” of trees by commercial logging, and burn “166,543 acres.” I don’t know where she got these numbers: as I said in my La Jicarita article, many of the on-the-ground decisions about what thinning methods will be used—mechanized, chainsaws, mastication—and who will be doing the thinning—stewardship contracts, thinning contracts, firewood sales—have yet to be determined.
She also raised an issue that has been argued endlessly: whether thinning the forest canopy improves watershed function because more snowfall reaches the ground; or leaving a dense canopy cools the ground so that it holds more moisture and prevents evaporation. I raised this issue at a public meeting Forest Guild held in Peñasco to present the forest acres they have identified for treatment in the Rio Trampas watershed. They identified these acres from input gathered at previous public meetings where residents identified priorities for the project: water quality and supply came in first. The Guild believes that opening up the canopy allows for more groundwater recharge, and that’s certainly the position the Forest Service takes as well. The Camino Real District Ranger was at the meeting and said, “Fewer straws will suck less water.”
The Rio Trampas project is primarily targeting ponderosa pine, as is the Jemez project. The second highest priority identified at the public meetings was reducing wildfire risk. Ponderosa is the primary species in the wildland/urban interfaces in the villages of El Valle, Las Trampas, Ojito, Chamisal, and Ojo Sarco. And as drought conditions worsen, the ponderosa is moving into the upper end of its range of spruce/fir vegetation. Like the Jemez plan the Rio Trampas incorporates thinning and removal of wood products and then the introduction of fire.
Ponderosa pine treatments seem to elicit the most concern from many of those who commented on all three projects. Jan Boyer and Jon Couch, a Placitas resident who has been working with the Las Huertas Land Grant on its restoration proposal in the Sandia Mountains, object to any burning in the Jemez project. Boyer references the Cerro Grande fire as a cautionary tale, but also claims that the Forest Service’s usual method of ignition, “potassium permanganate,” is “toxic.” Couch claims that ponderosa stands can rarely survive “control” burns and oak and locust will take over. In his comment to my article he also claims that the USFS, after clearcutting the fir and spruce in the 1960s through the 1990s, created a ponderosa pine “plantation.”In a subsequent e-mail he said: “As late as the early ‘90s I planted ponderosa seedlings along with my partners of Southwestern Forestry Workers Co-op on land in the Jemez that was yum-yarded. That’s where two bulldozers with a cable between them mow down acres of mixed conifer forest to create a war zone effect. Other contracts had us plant ponderosa seedlings between large mixed conifers with the intent to harvest the others to make way for the ponderosas. The reference books of the time for timber exams gave the prescription for mixed conifer stands in Region 3: clearcut and replant with ponderosa. I stand by my statement that the Jemez has been made into an artificial single-species plantation, first for the lumber industry and now perpetuated by Fire interests in the Forest Service for funding opportunities. . . This [the SJMLRP] is the worst idea yet from a National Forest mismanaged for 100 years. The control burn is the management tool of bureaucrats desperate for funding.”
Craig Allen, research ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey and the go-to guy on anything to do with Jemez Mountain forestry, just last week on an NPR show on mega-fires, drought, and climate change spoke about the 1,000-year history of ponderosa pines in the Jemez Mountains and what he and other scientists call the “new normal,” or the reality that climate change is exaggerating the normal swings in weather: droughts will be more intense and periods of wetter weather will decline. Drought has already destroyed 95 percent of the mature piñon pine at Bandelier; the ponderosa may be next. As with the USFS fire policies, we’ve come full circle with trees: first there was piñon/juniper, mixed conifer, and ponderosa, then there was ponderosa, now there is no ponderosa.
As David Correia wrote in his La Jicarita article, The Future of the Commons, Part III: Imagining a Future New Mexico without the Forest Service, political and economic transformations may eventually drive the USFS from the forests of northern New Mexico, but it’s hard to imagine just what those forests will look like as the drought worsens, fires rage, and debate continues about what kinds of management we might actually be able to effect.