Forest Restoration: The Story Goes On and On and On . . .


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.

The 2011 Las Conchas fire: harbinger of the future? Photo by Jakob Schiller

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.

El Valle Contract Stewardship block that has been thinned and burned. Photo by Kay Matthews




  1. Nice work tying together emerging thinking on forest restoration.

    Thanks for also mentioning the Rio Trampas project (

    If we can’t agree on a healthy forest, maybe we can talk about a resilient forest, watershed, or landscape. I imagine the conversation would start: (1) Are our forests, watersheds, and landscapes resilient to fire, pests, pathogens, and climate change? (2) Can/should we try to increase their resiliency?
    Then the conversation can move to how that might happen and what it might look like.

    I’d also like to add that there is a broad consensus among researchers and managers that ponderosa pine and dry mixed conifer forest types were frequent-fire dominated systems and that management is needed to address how “out-of-wack” the majority of these forests are from their former, more sustainable selves.

  2. The so-called Jemez Restoration project is not restoration, no matter how much various foresters and land managers want to whine and play the victim. The public at large is tired of the presumptuous and blatantly arrogant attitude behind this project, and the thinly veiled threats that demand we get on board.
    First of all, annihilating the current vegetation, and then practicing some limited replanting might better be called a kind of radical experimentation with what remains of the Jemez Forest. Second, before any threats of stand replacing fires are accepted, it is critical to understand that the Forest Service has an active policy of only allowing their contractors to engage a fire, even if they are days-and days away. They will burn down your community, if the choice is between employing non-contractor resources, or watching your place go up in flames. Please, hold your cock and bull stories of fast response, unless that is you assume a week is fast response time. Need some proof?
    The NM National Guard repeatedly requested permission to deploy on the Las Conchas, and the record shows that the Forest Service refused their requests, as New Mexican’s homes, businesses and forest burned.
    The Forest Service ordered all local firefighting resources off the fire here, who were fighting to save homes and businesses, and refused to aid local firefighting efforts. Then they attempted to commandeer the local resources to be sent to Los Alamos. The Forest Service’s parting shot was to light a huge burnout before pulling all their resources off the fire. Several days later, all the bureaucrats arrived. When the vaunted contractors finally did show up, the lies and propaganda covering the Forest Service’s ineptitude were firmly in place.
    But wait, there’s more! The fire line was cut literally miles away from the fire. The “firefighters” then proceeded to repeatedly ignite new blazes to extend the fire to their fire line. Two of these new blazes lept into crown fires, and devastated dozens of square miles of once living forest.
    Lest we think the Jemez was just a bad mistake, we find similar accounts coming from Ruidoso, and the Gila. So, before we all applaud the Forest Service, we had better look at the truth of current fire policy and what it really means, especially in terms of its role in current huge fires.
    The Jemez is ground zero for bang up land mangement policies. The Forest Service here believes the best way to protect Salamander habitat, is to designate all kinds of dirtbike and atv routes all over it. After they light the burnout and destroy your community, they will stand back and arrogantly determine that they do not have to restore access to your community. It is amazing to me that people still refer to any plan that this group of paper pushing policy wonks cooks up as having any validity at all.
    La Jicarita here obviously continues to support this plan, and obviously has little understanding of conditions here, and so comes off as a champion of policy that will achieve but one goal-the furtherance of disaster capitalism, Forest Service style. We will see, if this comment is deleted as was my previous one.

  3. Please follow this link to the Society for Ecological Restoration’s Primer on Restoration ( The management in the SW Jemez Restoration Project is well grounded in this document and the science of ecological restoration. Ecosystem structure (size, arrangement, and density of trees) is far from its historic condition and the ecosystem is without its keystone disturbance process, fire.

    • The language and breadth of the Society’s statements are indeed wonderful and inspiring. Unfortunately for us here in the Jemez, reality offers a far different picture. First off, the lead agency here is the Forest Service, specifically the Santa Fe National Forest, and the Jemez Ranger District. The record will clearly show that science, their guidelines, and their mandates will not interfere with their internal policy decisions. I love to choose their prime piece of work, travel management, as a perfect example of the conditions of which I speak. Travel Management was originally intended as a resource protection tool, promoting safety and controlling vehicular use. In less than one year after implementation, travel management brought us widespread criminal activities, injuries and deaths, and an atmosphere of lawlessness and danger across the South Jemez. Yes, this is the policy of the Forest Service, an agency alone capable of turning a quiet rural backwater into a war zone in less than a year! Wow, some accomplishment! All of this was directly due to the policy of the Forest Service, and to this day, Mike Frazier, one of the head policy wonks at the main office, maintains his fairy tale that the FS is not responsible for any of this.
      Can anyone improve their policy when they are lost in dreamland about its effects? Can such reality challenged office workers have the required discernment to understand exactly what their policy is doing on the land they do not know or care about? I’ll answer this last one for you-NOPE!!!!!
      It is easy for outsiders to champion events taking place in someone else’s back yard. They do not know the levels of dangerous incompetence, rejection of law and science that spearhead every action the FS implements.
      No Society will ever get the Forest Service to coordinate with, and respect local communities. No society can steer them into employing sane and real methods, for no one can penetrate their haze of fantasy that they surround themselves with.
      Some questions that need to be asked, and some real answers given, not fantasy island bullshit lines that the FS is so fond of…
      What is the track record for successful forest service programs that actually were intended to improve the forest here in the Jemez? What has really happened to those programs? What are the real effects of any of these programs? Is there any demonstrable benefit accrued to the ecosystem, the flora and fauna?
      Find the answers, then get back to me about how wonderful the burning and looting of the last of the South Jemez forest is going to be.

      • Michael,
        You will find on La Jicarita readers who surely share your skepticism regarding the ability of the Forest Service to effectively manage northern New Mexico’s forests. But I wonder if maybe you should reconsider the logic of your criticism. Your posts always roundly condemn the USFS for its incompetence. But in your comment above you also condemn them for establishing the conditions for “widespread criminal activities” on the southern Jemez. You can’t have it both ways. If they’re incompetent they surely did not establish these conditions (and what conditions are these, by the way? Widespread criminal activity? Are you suggesting that enterprising criminals are reading USFS documents and finding opportunities to exploit the forest in ways impossible before the plan?) But more importantly, however, I think your give the USFS too much credit. These travel management plans are hardly worth the paper they are written on. There is no staff or budget to enforce any of these rules. The plans, then, are a federally-mandated smokescreen that is, in practice, nothing more than a desperate effort on the part of the USFS to “appear” in charge. This, I think is the important issue and one worth taking head on. It is important because this can only end, in my opinion, with a total restructuring of USFS authority in New Mexico. What will that look like? How will authority over New Mexico’s forests be dispersed during this transition? These questions, and others like them, as you know from reading our posts, are the questions that preoccupy us.

  4. David,
    I will illustrate conditions promoting and protecting criminal behavior, and exhibiting incompetence. Both conditions do indeed exist together, and in my opinion, actually work synergistically.
    I will choose from the most recent case in point, Travel Management. I use TM because TM is taken very seriously by the FS itself, which is evidenced by their expenditure of well over 1 million dollars for the Santa Fe plan alone, according to my information. I agree that the upshod of TM is a useless paper pushing exercise, not because it, TM, was a bad idea in itself, but because it has been rendered ineffective by the very agency bringing it forth. Either TM was designed to fail from the start, a flawed policy intended as a great distraction, or a pile of busy work, or it was mishandled to the extreme. Since even I find it hard to imagine that the FS would intentionally create their own very public failure, then it must be that they have created a plan that has no chance of effectively working. It can be demonstrated, and in fact has been demonstrated, that an effective travel plan is both possible and attainable, yet the FS stubbornly sticks to their own idiotic misconception. This is a clear case of incompetence.
    During the implementation phase of TM, beginning in 2004 and not ending until the DEIS was released in 2010, the FS chose to train various off road vehicle groups on route approval, and accept their submitted routes. The claim to the public was that this practice was to discover where each one of these groups rode and drove. Unsurprisingly, when unleashed upon the forest, armed with Forest Service gps devices, and anointed as official forest service volunteers, these groups drove and rode everywhere possible-literally. They never did discover exactly where these groups went, but these groups did appropriate and destroy our entire network of 150 year old trails as they cut 700 miles of illegal routes through our 100 square mile area. Bolstered by an ideology of some obscure “right to ride” mythology, they took to speeding through boyscout encampments, shooting up gates and fences, destroying signs, threatening rural citizens, issuing death threats, vandalizing private property, and committing regular armed trespass. I cannot tell you how many times bullets from off roaders’ guns sailed past my head, when going about my daily chores. Their chainsaws cut through the forest and private property in a mad frenzy of destruction. All of this was clearly and obviously caused by forest service policy. When repeatedly questioned, and when action was demanded from the forest service to halt the insane crime spree, the FS refused to reveal who it was who did the deeds and submitted the illegal routes, claiming a lack of knowledge that was utterly false. I later learned the FS knew exactly who had submitted routes, and who was waging a campaign of terror, but they chose to conceal this information. They refused to take any steps to cool the situation, or to bring law and order, instead they sat back and left the communities they victimized to deal with it on their own. The FS published these routes for years on their website, promoting and sanctioning the above conditions, and refused to remove them, even though they were repeatedly asked to do so. Thus they created the condition, provided motive, and concealed the perpetrators. Aiding and abetting crime is a crime, and the FS is the agency that is responsible.
    Thus we have the condition where both rampant incompetence, and criminal behavior worked to create a war zone out of our once peaceful mountain area.
    The Forest Service has been the focus for seemingly endless attempts, both from within and without, to reform and become an effective agency. All such efforts have lead to nothing but an unaccountable rogue agency incapable of effective action. Since we can’t send them to a good psychologist, we must send them to the scrap bin of history.
    The only answer that makes any sense to what the next phase of land management might look like, is to declare that it not look anything like it does today.

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