Burning Landscapes: Nature and Management Continuously Redefined

By KAY MATTHEWS

I saw smoke come up over the ridge just where the Borrego Fire appeared in 2002 and soon heard that the new fire was burning southeast of Truchas. My first thought was, “Here we go again,” but my second thought was, “Maybe it will burn into the Borrego scar and run out of fuel.” Which is a sad commentary on what we think of as fire management these days: a former conflagration is the only way to put out a current conflagration.

Smoke plume from Las Conchas Fire, looking much like that of the Borrego and Jaroso fires. Jakob Schiller photo
Smoke plume from Las Conchas Fire, looking much like that of the Borrego and Jaroso fires. Jakob Schiller photo

It turns out the Jaroso Fire, which began on June 10, is burning further east than the Borrego Fire, in the Pecos Wilderness in steep, mixed conifer terrain near Pecos Baldy. It’s not easily accessed country, frequented mostly by backpackers and folks from the surrounding villages who’ve been riding their horses into the backcountry for generations.

The U.S. Forest Service closed the Pecos Wilderness soon after the fire began, a very unusual action to take considering the rest of the forest was open and under only Stage I restrictions, which still allowed fires in designated campsites and chainsaw use (with spark arresters). When I called the Camino Real district office to ask about the closure I was told it’s because of the two fires burning there, the Jaroso and the Tres Lagunas, which had been burning for several weeks on the east side of the wilderness, near the town of Pecos. Then a couple of days later they closed all the trails on the district that lead into the Pecos Wilderness. Then it rained for the next five days, in the middle of June, which it never does. So nothing is as it has been, there is no “normal,” as the postmodernists have been telling us for years, and no one really knows what to expect—except that whether it’s climate change, extended drought, or both, it’s only going to get worse.

The village of Pecos covered in smoke from the Tres Lagunas Fire. Eric Shultz photo
The village of Pecos covered in smoke from the Tres Lagunas Fire, June 4, 2013. Eric Shultz photo

The USFS currently spends half its budget on fire suppression. Much of this money is transferred from non-fire fighting accounts to the tune of $2.7 billion over the past 10 years. In 1991 fire related activity accounted for 13 percent of the agency’s budget; in 2012 it was 40 percent. As stated in a June 4, 2013 USFS press release, “Each time the agency transfers money out of accounts to pay for fire suppression there are significant and lasting impacts across the entire Forest Service. Not only do these impacts affect the ability of the Forest Service to conduct stewardship work on national forests, they also affect agency partners, local governments and tribes.”

Some of the folks who posted to the La Jicarita website last year about the devastating 2011 Las Conchas fire in the Jemez Mountains probably think this isn’t such a bad thing. They believe the Forest Service got us into this mess in the first place and only compounds the situation with its “restoration” projects and hopeless bureaucracy.

Even if one believes in the efficacy of vast restoration work across the West the agency will never have the money and work force to take on the 400 million acres it deems as “moderate to high risk” of wildfire. From 2001 to 2011 it treated 27.6 million acres, most of that in the wildland/urban interface. But as our La Jicarita commenters so clearly demonstrate, there is certainly no consensus as to what that treatment should be: hand thinning, commercial thinning, prescription burning, contract stewardship blocks, etc. And if the USFS is so dysfunctional—or representative of a political and economic system that is both dysfunctional and exploitative—who or what can be charged with the overwhelming task of setting policy and prescription? We’ve addressed this question in several La Jicarita articles as well (June 1, 2012; August 17, 2012; August 27, 2012).

Thompson Ridge Fire in the Jemez Mountains. Jakob Schiller photo
Thompson Ridge Fire in the Jemez Mountains. Jakob Schiller photo

In the meantime, the agency relies on special Congressional funding programs for the small percentage of forest treatments it’s undertaken. The Southwest Jemez Mountains Restoration Project will be partially funded by the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program with the goal of treating 100,000 acres. The Rio Trampas Watershed Restoration Project, funded through the planning stages by the Collaborative Forest Restoration Project (CFRP), hopes to treat 10,000 acres with additional CFRP monies.

Both of these restoration projects propose to use prescriptive fire as one of their restoration tools. While the Thompson Ridge Fire has been burning in the Jemez Mountains in the area of the proposed restoration project, according to Phyllis Ashmead of Santa Fe National Forest the fire is primarily located on the Valles Caldera Preserve; only about 30 acres of the burn are on the Jemez Ranger District, inside the project boundaries: “The fire won’t impact our planning process, but it could effect [sic] the watersheds downstream from the fire within the Southwest Jemez Mountains Landscape Restoration Area.” Interestingly enough, however, release of the draft environmental impact statement, originally scheduled for April of 2013, has been pushed back to September because of the expected listing of the Jemez Mountains Salamander as an endangered species.

Southwest Jemez Mountains Restoration Project. Santa Fe National Forest image
Southwest Jemez Mountains Restoration Project. Santa Fe National Forest image

Before we can get back to the conversation regarding fire as a prescriptive management tool we have to have a conversation about how to manage when the non-prescriptive fires are burning “out of control.” What exactly does “out of control” mean: fires that are going to burn regardless of the amount of resources thrown at them; inaccessible terrain; or USFS management decisions regarding the extent of fire fighting resources committed to the fire? Who makes the decision to commit those resources and what is that decision based on?

Slowly, over the course of several decades, USFS fire suppression 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 last summer, had employed this policy since the 1970s. Then the Forest Service claimed 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. The fire in the Gila was ultimately described as “beneficial” to the forest ecology, but while it was burning the agency worried about its unpredictability and public perception that the forests were being destroyed.

Whitewater-Baldy Fire in the Gila. Jakob Schiller photo
Whitewater-Baldy Fire in the Gila. Jakob Schiller photo

The Jaroso Fire is burning in heavily overstocked, diseased forests deep within the wilderness that hasn’t seen a fire in a 100 years. This fire would seem to qualify for “monitoring” and “let burn” policy—although that terminology is a PR nightmare for the Forest Service—where no structures or communities are threatened in the wildland/urban interface. While the official word is that the fire is too dangerous for ground crews to be deployed, are fire managers actually taking a “hands off” approach on this one, cognizant of the benefits and hoping it continues to burn northeast, into the “wilderness,” instead of southwest, towards “civilization”?

The New Mexico Fire Info website posted this statement about the Jaroso Fire: “The team continues to develop potential suppression strategies to protect critical assets at risk and identify consequences of the potential loss of those assets. The team is using the input they have received from stakeholders and the community that identified assets of particular importance that may be affected by the fire.”

I’m not sure who they perceive are the “stakeholders” and the “community” or if the  “assets” they’re referring to are wilderness recreation and watershed protection, but if they conducted a survey of norteños who have had a longtime relationship with the Forest Service, on many different levels—firewood cutting, thinning contracts, acequia access, grazing permits— they might get the response that many folks want the agency to both “do something” and “do nothing.” Jake Kosek articulated this mixed message in his book Understories: The Political Life of Forest in Northern New Mexico, describing the controversy over timber management in the mid 1990s: the “current debates over forest health . . . evoke seemingly contradictory responses, from deep resentment and expressions of violence to pleas for greater Forest Service intervention and increased institutional budgets. At stake for northern New Mexico are the future role and authority of the Forest Service and the fate of millions of acres of federally contested land.”

As Kosek describes in his book, we blame the USFS for getting us into this mess in the first place and at the same time expect them to somehow get us out of it (not the USFS haters I referenced earlier). We then end up acceding to the agency’s decisions regarding what they “control” or “monitor” or “let burn.” Kosek’s argument is that Forest Service “protection, management, and care of” both communities and forest landscapes is the way the agency maintains its legitimacy.

On June 23, the information officer on the Santa Fe National Forest called to ask if I was getting the updates on the Jaroso Fire; the fire spread is actually south, into the Rio de Frijoles watershed, but the huge new plumes of smoke are drifting north over the villages in the Truchas area. On June 24, the USFS closed the Santa Fe National Forest. The debates about forest health and fire management will continue, but this year most of us are literally locked out of the forests and the conversation.

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