Resilient Forests, Safe Communities, Clean Water: Show Me the Money

Wildland Urban Interface in the Jemez Mountains Wildland Urban Interface in the Jemez Mountains


The United States Forest Service, The Nature Conservancy, Forest Guild, and Wildearth Guardians (that was a surprise) all got together a week or so ago to talk about “Living with Fire in Northern New Mexico.”

Craig Allen and Tom Swetnam, the scientists who’ve done extensive research in New Mexico forests were there to discuss climate change and fire impacts; Eytan Krasilovsky of Forest Guild and the project director of the Rio Trampas Forest Restoration Project talked about fire adapted communities and forest resilience; and Forest Service personnel laid out the agency’s fire fighting management policies.

In my October article “Wildfire Management: the “Hands On, Hands Off” Debate I questioned the consistency of Forest Service fire fighting management; at the meeting the Forest Service said its policy is defined by three categories: full suppression; allowed to burn; and prescribed fire. All human caused fires fall under the full suppression mandate. Lightning caused fires that are “in the wrong place at the wrong time,” meaning during conditions of high temperature, low humidity, and dry conditions or located in watersheds or near communities also fall under the full suppression parameters.

Those fires “allowed to burn” must meet multiple objectives, i.e., ground fire of low intensity to help thin overgrown forests in isolated areas outside of the wildland urban interface. If the fires meet these criteria the Forest Service has the time to consult with other agencies such as the Air Quality Bureau to monitor and assess the fire’s progress.

Prescribed fires fall under the guidelines of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and follow the Prescribed Fire Burn Policy.

The Forest Service gave examples of fires within the categories: the massive Las Conchas and Tres Lagunas fires in the Jemez and Sangre de Cristos were full suppression fires that threatened Los Alamos National Laboratory, the Santa Clara Pueblo watershed, and the Pecos watershed.The 2010 Ojito Fire outside of Chamisal burned approximately 300 acres and met allowed burn objectives.

This photo by a USFS photographer was taken the day before the NASA satellite photo. Photo by Kari Greer, USFS
Photo by Kari Greer, USFS

There is another category that didn’t come up in the meeting until I asked about the Jaroso Fire that burned in the Pecos Wilderness last summer. The fire would have fallen into the full suppression category as it was burning in hot, dry conditions, with enormous fuels from a previous blow down, and threatened several watersheds on the west and north side of the wilderness, but it became the third category of too “dangerous” to fight. The other factor that caused this re-categorization is that the fire was far enough away from the wildland urban interface to not pose any immediate threats to people and houses and allowed the Forest Service to back away. The “too dangerous to fight” category seems likely to become the agency’s default position as so many fires become essentially uncontrollable conflagrations because of drought conditions and climate change. The tragic outcome of sending fire crews to these kinds of fires resulted in the deaths of the 19 firefighters in Arizona last summer.

Wildland Urban Interface in the Jemez Mountains
Wildland Urban Interface in the Jemez Mountains

The distance between the wildland urban interface and wilderness is shrinking; public lands managers and state governments are being hard pressed to protect communities that are contingent to or built within forested lands. Colorado recently proposed “that lawmakers charge fees on homes built in woods, rate the wildfire risk of the 556,000 houses already built in burn zones on a 1-10 scale and inform insurers, and establish a state building code for use of fire-resistant materials and defensible space.” In Colorado approximately one of every four houses is built in wildfire zones. While the state isn’t going so far as to enact laws that restrict development in these zones, the proposed regulations at least provide financial disincentives to build there.

The biggest surprise at the meeting, at least for me, was the announcement of The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC) Rio Grande Basin Water Fund, a 10 to 30 year project to leverage funding for forest restoration in the upper Rio Grande Basin. Largely in response to the 2011 Las Conchas Fire that caused both Albuquerque and Santa Fe to shut down their San Juan/Chama water supplies for 40 and 20 days respectively (to prevent ash from clogging their diversion dams), the Fund aims to increase water security in this most critical water basin. TNC wants to treat 700,000 acres of overgrown forests “including 40 percent of the most high-risk areas in the Rio Grande watershed”: thinning overgrown forests, restoring streams, and rehabilitating areas that flood after wildfires.

After a year of scoping, TNC hopes to have a fund established by spring or early summer of 2014. In an initial study funded by Bernalillo County, and in collaboration with the United States Geologic Survey (USGS), TNC has been studying the Sandia and Manzano Mountains to assess the “probability of burn” and the “probability of burn debris flow” to help identify where work on the ground needs to focus. The Jemez Mountains will be next on the study list, and then the west slope of the Sangre de Cristos.

TNC hopes to leverage money from a “flexible” funding source that can include both public land agencies, state and local governments, and private businesses that realize how vulnerable our communities and economies are to catastrophic fires in the watershed. As TNC’s Laura McCarthy puts it, “People care a lot about forests but they care about water more.” Flexible funding can be directed to groups like Forest Guild, whose NEPA work on the Rio Trampas Forest Restoration Project will have 10,000 acres ready for treatment.

The New Mexico legislature took a first step last session to identify the state’s most critical watersheds after seeing the damaging effects of the Las Conchas Fire. House memorials and joint memorials were argued over, amended, and passed that called for the state agencies, along with tribal and federal agencies to develop and implement proactive best management practices to both prevent and minimize fire impacts on watersheds such as the San Juan/Chama and the Gallinas above Las Vegas. TNC hopes to work collaboratively with the legislation to leverage state funding in the next 60-day session. As Craig Allen said in his presentation at the meeting, we have a short window of opportunity to make our forests more resilient as we head into many years of drought and climate change conditions. Time is of the essence.