Working with What We Have: Making Resilient Forests, Watershed by Watershed

Commentary by KAY MATTHEWS

Left to right: Matt Bernstein, Jakob Schiller, Sam Markwell, and Eric Shultz.  Photo by Kay Matthews

The wood crew pictured above is celebrating the last truckload of firewood cut in my Contract Stewardship block in the Chamisal wildland/urban interface on the Camino Real Ranger District. I talked about stewardship blocks in my last article (Forest Restoration: The Story Goes On and On and On . . . ), which are between one and two acre forest stands sold to individuals or families to thin everything in the block for firewood, fuel reduction, and to allow the dominant tree species to flourish. This is the fourth block my family has cut, but it may be the last.

While stewardship blocks are a good deal for the Forest Service—people are essentially paying them, albeit a small amount, to do the work the agency doesn’t have the money or workforce to accomplish—it can’t even keep up with the demand for the blocks. There’s a two-year waiting list for other blocks to be scoped and marked for entry. At a meeting in Peñasco of the Rio Trampas Watershed Restoration Project, a planning grant project to identify and survey critical lands within the watershed that need treatment, Forest Service personnel described in detail how the agency now depends upon special funding and grants, such as the Collaborative Forest Restoration Program (CFRP) and the Collaborative Forest Landscape Program (CFLP), rather than regular agency funding allocated by Congress, to do anything. But CFRP, which is funding the Rio Trampas project, may also be in jeopardy. It was instigated 11 years ago by Senator Jeff Bingaman “to address the health of Region 3 national forests by expanding community capacity and developing niche markets for the small-diameter wood coming off thinning projects.” Bingaman is retiring at the end of the year, and CFRP has already been cut back from $5 million per year to $4 million (with eight percent of that going to administrative costs).

Over the years La Jicarita News has been a harsh critic of CFRP; in 2004 we wrote a two-part series critiquing the successes and failures of the project. This is what we had to say in part two:

“We believe the main problem with the Collaborative Forest Restoration Project in northern New Mexico is that with a few notable exceptions, the infusion of dollars is not creating sustainable, long-term community forestry businesses that can work to significantly reduce the risk of wildfire. In our review of the granting process we found that too much funding was directed to technical assistance groups rather than community-based foresters. The rationale for this is that these assistance groups can provide the necessary training to help community foresters develop a dependable workforce, skilled in both forestry and business. Unfortunately, the technical advisors often maintain control of the projects and are the main beneficiaries of the funding. Instead of working directly with a forestry business to help develop internal leadership and capacity, the groups often train a temporary crew to work on a single thinning project that isn’t meant to evolve into a sustainable business. Salaries reflect a huge disparity between the technical advisors and the on-the-ground workforce.

“While CFRP funding provides a short-term infusion of money that allows groups to buy some necessary equipment and pay their workforce, it is short sighted. As we pointed out in part one, unless it is coordinated with Forest Service policy that provides the necessary NEPA-ready land and consistency of contracts, community forestry businesses cannot remain viable.”

Fast forward to 2012 and talk of “building community capacity” or creating “sustainable, long-term community forestry businesses” is long gone. Now, as demonstrated in a project like the Rio Trampas, we’re grateful for CFRP monies spent on getting forest lands NEPA approved so that groups like Forest Guild, which is the coordinator of the Rio Trampas project, can then again apply for funding for actual implementation—thinning, prescribed burning, watershed stabilization—by any means available: thinning contracts, more Contract Stewardship blocks, service contracts, green fuel wood areas, etc. None of these speak directly to helping community foresters, but no one expects that anymore: there aren’t many left.

While we’re not talking about building community capacity we’re still faced with figuring out what constitutes healthy forests and what kind of activities will help create them. Comments to previous forest restoration articles in La Jicarita have revealed the lack of consensus on these issues. But I thought that Eytan Krasilovsky, Forest Guild director of the Rio Trampas project, made a good point when he commented that “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?” Perhaps this would guide us away from arguments over whether we should try to replicate ponderosa pine forests with a frequent fire regimen or prohibit the use of fire as a management tool because of the public’s skepticism.

The two main objectives in the Rio Trampas project are to reduce the threat of large, high intensity wildfires and improve watershed health in piñon-juniper, ponderosa pine, and mixed conifer ecosystems. We can see the inability of the USFS to achieve these desired conditions without the help of a CFRP grant as many things: ironic, retribution for years of failed management, an opportunity for more collaborative (dare I use the word) action among stakeholders, and perhaps the beginning of a different kind of management, watershed by watershed, community by community.

In his comment Krasilovsky attached the web address of the Society for Ecological Restoration, which talks about the “altered trajectories” of impacted ecosystems that “contemporary constraints and conditions” have caused. The results of what we’ve altered are obvious: overstocked and disease ridden forests, vulnerable communities, global warming and climate change, megafires that destroy everything in their path. If we keep in mind the ecological, cultural, and historical singularities of regional environments maybe we can once again alter the trajectory in a more “restorative” fashion.


One comment

  1. Healthy forests should be the goal for all, however, the inability of current agencies, like the forest service, to perceive that forests are dynamic, and not static, greatly hinders any movement toward understanding and living with forests, much less achieving a state of “health”.
    The fervor with which fire and “thinning” are unleashed on our forests do not promote a healthy state. They ignore critical principles of the life cycle, and substitute a ham handed and intensive approach that stifles normal and natural responses. Further, the heavy handed forcing of timelines upon completely misunderstood natural processes reveals a bankrupt knowledge of the effects of these very policies.
    Further, the public is wildly ignorant concerning forests, forest cycles, and forest health. This puts them at the mercy of nutjob agencies greedy for the cash, like the forest service. If the public had at the very least, introductory knowledge of the forces acting on their forests, they may well demand a sane approach to forest management. Unfortunately this option is off the table.
    Personally, I find one of the most significant questions regarding forest “management” is never asked. Since forests predated humans, where do humans get off thinking they know what is best for the forest? A perfect example of this hubris is found in the current “Jemez Restoration”, where the forest is going to be magically restored to an unattainable ideal by forcing it to become a grassland.
    The best example for illustrating the stupidity of this exercise is found in wildlife itself. The Jemez is home to species who are intolerant of fire, requiring thick foliage, and complete canopies. If the forest service office workers are right that trees should only exist in tiny islands, with no undergrowth, how in the hell did these species survive and thrive? But hey, lets not ask any significant questions. They will be ignored, dismissed, and forgotten as quickly as possible, especially if they cast doubt upon the slash and burn policy.
    Forests are interwoven living communities, cyclic, changing, and fragile. It is heart wrenching to watch the forest struggle to rebound from the many intentional burns lit during Las Conchas, and billed to the American taxpayer as fire fighting, which is a complete fabrication. As an aside, Is it a criminal act to burn forests to the ground, and pretend that its fire fighting? If not, it is certainly morally bankrupt, and ethically bereft.
    A burned forest is not a healthy forest. A forest deprived of its seedlings and saplings is not a healthy forest. The healthy forest is not a momotype. To assign some mythical status to certain aspects and states of the forest, while actively killing the others, is a fool’s errand. This illustrates an overly simplistic ideology fueled by compartmentalized thinking, devoid of understanding wider conditions.
    Further, the Jemez currently is in the midst of the worst drought in recorded history. Rainfall, and especially snowfall are extremely unreliable. Drought conditions, more than any other factor, compromise forests, and make them vulnerable to fire.
    The so-called thinning, and burning operations have done nothing in the Jemez to reduce or eliminate wildfire. Repeat, no burning or thinning has shown itself effective in reducing or suppressing fire. In fact, no previous burn has acted as a buffer for fire, including crown fires. Despite this lack of evidence, the forest service marches on, burning with reckless abandon, supported by their friends in the environmental community, constantly repeating the false mantra that this burning and looting activity will reduce wildfire. Guess what, even if you repeat a lie often enough to have people believe it, its still a lie.
    Burning and thinning are now firmly ensconced in the land management book of faith, one which pretends to science, but really follows the money.
    Latest example; The forest service just torched 12 square miles of the Jemez, right next to the most devastating fire in anyone’s memory. By choosing the Fall to burn, they have forced wildlife to expend precious resources to escape the unseasonal burns-those that could escape, meanwhile depriving them of food and cover, all this just before the winter when resources are most critical. Yes, I have pointed this out to the forest service, but quite apparently, they prefer harassing wildlife to changing their policy.
    Because these fanatics have a passionate hate for ground cover, there will be none when spring runoff occurs. Care to hazard a prediction on what this will mean to surface water sources? Yep, read heavy sediment burden.
    Without ground cover, what will occur on those steep slopes the Jemez is famous for? If you guessed erosion, and lots of it, you win the gold star.
    One might ask exactly how any of this is going to improve the forest, or how the chemical changes in the soil are going to benefit fire intolerant species, or perhaps even question how burned trees that become more susceptible to fire are going to continue to withstand it. You might wonder what this will mean for the rare plant diversity of the Jemez, for the rare Jemez Mountain Salamander. However, you will not be allowed to demand answers, mostly because the agencies in charge, and their friends, don’t have any. They don’t care what is real, supportable, definable, or evidence based. They have their faith, and with faith, all else falls away, especially when faith is matched with lots of federal reserve notes.

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