By KAY MATTHEWS
A few weeks ago the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance made its pitch to the Taos County Commission on its goal to extend the boundaries of the Pecos Wilderness to include 130,000 acres of roadless area on all its boundary sides. The north end of this expansion lies within Taos County near Peñasco. The Alliance previously presented its case at a meeting in Peñasco, sponsored by Commissioner Candyce O’Donnell, who wanted to make sure the most affected communities in her district would have a chance to express their opinions.
At both hearings the Alliance raised the specter of the latest reactionary movement to transfer control of public lands from the federal government to the states, which began in the 1980s with the Sagebrush Rebellion, was resurrected by Cliven Bundy in his 2013 standoff with the Bureau of Land Management in Nevada, and is now being promoted by the American Lands Council, based in Utah. The Alliance repeatedly claimed that in order to protect as much land as possible from this threat we need to designate it wilderness, which would preclude its transfer.
Using this “threat” as a cudgel to gain support for its proposal is disingenuous at best and an outright fabrication at worst: the transfer is never going to happen. It would be a financial disaster, despite the American Lands Council’s claim that if the lands are transferred to the states, local economies would be able to cash in all the mineral development, oil and gas leases, and fishing and hunting licenses it would control. States would never be able to withstand the volatile circumstances involved in any of these markets and the federal government is never going to cede control.
Pity the financially strapped counties that are being persuaded to buy into the Council’s claims. All across the west counties that contribute $1,000 or more get a “seat at the table” (Otero and Sierra counties in New Mexico), which largely pays the salary of Ken Ivory, a Republican state representative from Utah, president of the American Lands Council, who travels around the county “educating” states about their “jurisdictional rights to manage, protect, and care for the lands within our borders,” as described on the Council’s website. He’s backed by a board of directors of other white Republican men from Utah, as well as Americans for Prosperity, the conservative group backed by Koch brother money.
There are more important issues to explore regarding the Alliance’s wilderness proposal. In northern New Mexico there is little love lost between the land grant communities in the shadow of the Pecos Wilderness and the federal agency that administers these public lands—the U.S. Forest Service. At a meeting in 2012 when John Olivas of the Wilderness Alliance (and former Mora County commissioner) met with Peñasco area land grant groups, they delivered a strong message that they weren’t interested in more restricted control of their former common lands by an agency they already view as an occupier. Most of what is now Carson National Forest was, of course, originally inhabited by Native people and then deeded as Spanish and Mexican land grants, whose settlers utilized the land for its timber, water, and grazing resources, i.e, an inhabited wilderness, where they lived in village communities on small private properties adjacent to these vast commons. The idea of wilderness, an area “untrammeled by man,” is an alien concept to the folks who witnessed the loss of these lands to the chicanery of the adjudication process, the exploits of Anglo and elite Hispano business interests, and finally, the federal government in the form of the United States Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.
From an ecological standpoint, we need to assess whether wilderness classification will help or hinder much needed watershed restoration work in our national forests. At the 2012 meeting with the Alliance, Vincent Abeyta of the Santa Barbara Land Grant had this to say about current management: “The Forest Service hasn’t protected our grant up to now so we don’t think they’d do any better with this.”
Most of the wilderness areas in northern New Mexico are in about the same shape as the rest of the forests: overgrown with small diameter trees that reduce the amount of water, mostly in the form of snowmelt, that seeps into the forest soils and flows downstream to springs and rivers. The trees use the water through the process of evapotranspiration—capturing the water in the tree trunks and sending it up to the branches and leaves—and also prevent it from reaching the ground because of its dense canopy.
The reason there are so many more trees in the forest is largely due to decades of fire suppression, which has been the management practice both within and outside wilderness areas. The Forest Service, under pressure from the environmental community, has been moving towards a policy of “allowed burns” in areas where conditions meet multiple objectives, i.e., ground fire of low intensity to help thin overgrown forests in isolated areas outside of wildland urban interface. But the 2013 Jaroso Fire that burned in the Pecos Wilderness demonstrates how tenuous this policy is. As is the case in many wilderness areas, the Pecos contains the headwaters of many streams and rivers that supply surrounding communities and cities. Despite the watersheds the Jaroso Fire threatened, it ended up delineating a different fire fighting policy, that of “too dangerous to fight,” because of the enormous amount of fuels in the fire’s path. 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 (tragically demonstrated in the Washington and California fires currently burning). It may be too late to assume that a wilderness designation will result in any different fire suppression policy.
In the same La Jicarita article about the Jaroso Fire, I mentioned The Nature Conservancy’s 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. Expanding the boundaries of the wilderness into the roadless areas that are closer to forest dependent communities could limit this kind of restoration work.
These are the issues that need to be discussed in the conversations about the Wilderness Alliance proposals, not whether the designation will save our forest lands from a reactionary movement towards state control that isn’t going to happen. While the Forest Service may be doing its best to privatize services, particularly with regard to recreation, which is quickly becoming its raison d’ etre, the rest of us better start figuring how we’re going to prevent many more millions of acres of national forest from being “treated”, i.e., burned to a crisp, by uncontrolled wildfires.