Forest Restoration: Too Little Too Late?

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.

Courtesy Forest Guild

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.”

…or this?
Photos by Kay Matthews
This…

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.

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3 comments

  1. In my travels around Burque, the RG valley and the Sandias, I see trees looking ragged after however many years of extreme low precipitation – especially sycamores this summer. I, too, am imagining 5 – 10 years down the road and what lack of sustaining moisture means for north central NM ecosystems – there won’t be as many trees. Hadn’t heard about the resuming of fire suppression as USFS policy. Ponderosas have shown behavior to encourage fire – heavy needle bed, thick bark, dropping of lower branches – to encourage a “meadow-like” spacing – I learned at least 20 -40 feet between trees.
    Glad these issues are being addressed by you, Kay.

  2. Full suppression of forest fires is another myth cultivated by the fire cult in the Forest Service. On the same day that the Chief of the F.S. announced the “new” policy firefighters were questioning why they were being ordered to put out fires in the Wyoming wilderness areas that had been previously allowed to burn. The same day two fires burning on the Cibola N.F. were being managed under “full suppression.” A 600 acre fire had four employees assigned to it and another had no personnel on it, according to the New Mexico Fire Info website. Bureaucrats have learned from the Defense Dept. that fear is a mighty motivator for congressional funding. Follow the money.

    Kay, you parroted the standard line of the F.S. that the current conditions are caused by successful suppression of forest fires over the years. As an old firefighter I can tell you no fire ever got put out that didn’t want to. Fires are larger now because they’re “nursed” by firefighters to create control burns and bigger pay checks, both for the firefighters and the agencies involved.

    I was misquoted by you in saying ponderosas rarely withstand control burns. I was talking about young trees. The Jemez plan calls for thinning dense stands of young trees with fire. Much of the so-called thinning is really a euphemism for control burns. I believe that fire is as natural to the forest ecosystem as cancer is to humans. We could use cancer to “thin” our population but it would be barbaric. The same with applying fire as a management tool.

    Jon Couch

  3. The Forest Service is incapable of functioning any longer as a responsible agency on any level. I have worked for 20+ years as a forest service volunteer, maintaining and keeping trails open in the Jemez. Since 2005, I have attempted in vain to impress upon the forest service that they must honor and validate their regulations and their mandate, and steer the agency upon a correct course. Today, the forest service is all about escaping accountability, and ducking their own regulations and mandates wherever, and whenever possible.
    It is a mistake of epic proportions to allow this agency to move forward with their misnamed Jemez Restoration Plan, unless what one wants to see are large scale logging operations, disguised by copious use of fire. Actually, it is brilliant, in a thoroughly psychopathic fashion, to log, and remove slash via fire, and convince the locals that it is all good for us. Yet this is the forest service of today, they use their mandates as cover for their real operations that are far from benign.
    If you need another example, take a good long look at travel management. The forest service regularly finds loopholes and exceptions to mandated protection for land, cultural resources, and habitat, in their zeal to designate permanent motorways for everything from highly tuned race vehicles to grandpa’s truck. They completely ignore input from locals, and rather than formulate a sensible plan that balances use and protects resources, they have come up with a plan that cannot possibly work, and have spent millions doing it. When a citizen has the temerity to ask why high speed race vehicles are given routes in our forest, on our 150 year old heritage site trails, the answers range from idiotic to incomprehensible.
    A further example is the Las Conchas fire. My own community was still standing on the second day, when the forest service abandoned all fire fighting efforts, ordered all local resources off the fire in the South Jemez, and tried to get them to abandon their communites as well. They lit the first of several deliberate ignitions, ignitions that had nothing to do with stopping or surpressing the fire, but which extended the blaze all the way to their fire line. This has nothing to do with fire surpression, and everything to do with using fire as a weapon against people and the forest.
    Fire does not help, strengthen, or improve the forest. Fire is a regenerative force for grasslands, but it is anathema for forests. I have lived in the forest most of my life, and I have seen the results of fire-from crown to low intensity, and in all cases, it hinders the cyles of forest life. We do not have fire because the trees are too close together. We do not have fire because the forest is unhealthy. We have fire because of drought-and people. Las Conchas, Cerro Grande, Dome, all three catastrophic fires fueled by drought conditions, and started by people.
    Lets be clear, giving the forest service permission to log and burn on this scale will destroy, not improve the forest. There will be greatly reduced opportunities for fuel wood collection, and the traditional gathering of “forest products”, herbs, roots, nuts. Local communities will not enjoy any special relationship with this plan, in fact, in discussing this situation with Julie Bain, the forest service official deeply involved with the “Jemez Restoration”, I was told that locals could not reach any consensus, and were more of a liability than a help. The work, the proceeds, and the money are all going to out of area contractors.
    If you are still trusting the forest service to deliver some reasonable or workable initiative, then I hope you are very young, because you will be waiting a very, very long time.
    What the Jemez currently needs are people who have an interest in long term survival, to be in positions of power. Current drought conditions are extremely debilitating, mountain wide, but especially in the South Jemez. With drought this severe, forests will not regenerate from catastrophe, instead they will retreat. This is exactly what we have seen here in the South Jemez over the last 16 years.
    In order to preserve traditional use of the forest, from gathering medicinals to firewood, hunting, and hiking, the forest must be preserved. The misnamed ‘Jemez Restoration” will indeed turn the forest into a largely useless, barren and weed chocked grassland. It will not reduce fire, it will increase fire risk, as the new grassland dries out quickly in the spring conditions, and provides perfect fodder for fast moving fire. The ever present high speed off road vehicles will roar through the area, rapidly increasing erosion, and removing large wildlife. The water resources will be continually loaded up with sediment, and be completely unsuitable for any life. In order to get their logging and burning plan through, the forest service will ignore, and refuse to address, these, and many other concerns. I know, because I have already tried. Imagine, dear reader, just how crazy it truly is to destroy 200,000 more acres that lie directly contiguous with the worst fire disaster in Northern New Mexico’s long history.
    With all due respect to Ms. Matthews, she is wrong to support this plan. I share her wish that something good be done, but I assure every reader that this plan is not it.
    No one can understand the forest by hanging out in offices, yet this is exactly what the forest service does. The last survey operation in my area of the Jemez had to be rescued by helicopter-TWICE. The forest service is dangerously incompetent, playing with our resources in psychopathic glee, shutting off and literally burning down local communities. It is possible to draw up a plan to reduce tree density where it is required. It is possible to analyze and understand conditions in the forest, and to come up with a proper management strategy, but an agency deathly afraid of accountability, pathologically ignoring its own rules and mandates, focused with maddening precision on its own bureaucratic paper shuffling is not the agency to accomplish this.
    The challenges of forest management escape the abilities of of the current office workers in forest service uniforms. Any agency that seeks to escape its mandate is fundamentamentally incapable of exercising it. Stop the disastrous Jemez Restoration plan, stop it now.

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