Wilderness and Forest Restoration: A Dilemma in San Cristobal

By KAY MATTHEWS

Editor’s Note: This article is dedicated to my colleague Ron Gardiner of Questa who died unexpectedly on Sunday, September 25. Ron and I worked together on the Taos Regional Water Plan to develop a Public Welfare Statement and later served on the Taos County Public Welfare Advisory Committee. He was a repository of information regarding Taos County watershed health and forest restoration and shared his knowledge on numerous county committees including subdivision regulation and land use planning. I heard that he recently gave many of his documents to some folks who can hopefully make sure they are archived for public consumption. His loss, along with that of Butchie Denver in 2012, makes my work at La Jicarita much more difficult. RIP, Ron.

I wasn’t expecting that covering the community meeting in San Cristobal about the Kiowa San Cristobal Wildland/Urban Interface forest restoration project would also be a vehicle for another story I was intending to write about the proposed expansion of the Pecos Wilderness, but there it was. The village of San Cristobal lies west of the newly designated Columbine-Hondo Wilderness area, far from the Pecos Wilderness, but community folks there are dealing with the reality that their overgrown watershed canyon, full of dog-hair thickets, now lies within the boundaries of the wilderness area, exempt from the restoration activities proposed for the wildland/urban interface project. This has been one of the objections raised by those opposed to the expansion of the Pecos Wilderness: let’s not restrict any more lands with a wilderness designation but focus on the hard work of restoring our many watershed and interface lands throughout northern New Mexico.

map_smallThe Kiowa San Cristobal Wildland/Urban Interface project is a partnership between the Rio Grande Water Fund and Carson National Forest (Questa Ranger District). The Water Fund was developed by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) to leverage funding from multiple sources— public land agencies, state and local governments, and private businesses—for forest restoration in the upper Rio Grande Basin. Largely in response to the 2011 Las Conchas Fire that caused 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.

Eleven thousand acres are slated for treatment in the Kiowa San Cristobal project. At the community meeting Carson NF personnel were on hand to discuss the proposed treatment methods with the community and solicit input regarding their needs. It was a surprise to this reporter, who lives in the Peñasco/Truchas area, that San Cristobal and La Lama community members have had to rely largely on dead and down permits for their firewood needs. In my neck of the woods, where timber products, particularly firewood, are of critical importance to community members, the Camino Real Ranger District must provide a variety of permitting options, including green fuelwood areas and contract stewardship blocks as well as dead and down permits to meet those needs.

The Questa Ranger District now plans to expand their timber options to meet both the goals of the restoration project and the needs of the community. There was a lengthy discussion about instituting contract stewardship blocks, which they now refer to as partnership blocks (to conform to official USFS language), which were initiated on the Camino Real RD in the 1990s and were hugely popular with the community. These are small thinning areas—one to several acres— of ponderosa pine and/or piñon-juniper vegetation near population centers for which individuals can purchase a permit for a minimal amount according to the number of cords available in the cutting block. Forest Service personnel mark the “leave trees”—those to be left standing— to meet prescriptions for spacing and forest health. The individual can then harvest everything else for his or her personal use. The partnership block is usually made available for a year, but extensions are often granted. Questa RD would like to make 100 blocks available to the community by 2018.

It was good to see considerable community enthusiasm expressed about this option but disappointing that it has taken so long for the idea to travel from the Camino Real to Questa. Way back in 2002 Carson National Forest sponsored a Collaborative Stewardship workshop in Taos where Camino Real foresters and community members discussed how partnership blocks could be replicated throughout all the ranger districts on the forest. Instead, due to various management decisions and lack of funding, the program struggled to remain active even on the Camino Real district. Silviculturist Gabe Romero is now assigned the task of overseeing the program on both the Camino Real and Questa districts.

Other restoration options will also be considered in the Kiowa San Cristobal project, including commercial thinning, service contracts (where bidding contractors can determine the value the wood they can use and trade that against what they would have charged to thin the smaller trees that they can’t use), and prescribed burning.

The discussion then segued to the community’s concern about the fact that the headwaters of San Cristobal Creek now lie within the boundaries of the newly designated Columbine-Hondo Wilderness, even though those boundaries have yet to be officially surveyed (the USFS Regional Office has supplied funding to conduct that survey). This watershed is the only source of the village’s water, and the conversation quickly grew animated when the concept of “cherry stemming” was raised, or creating an extension of non-wilderness designation into the wilderness area to allow for treatment options in the heavily forested watershed. Several folks raised the issue of why this wasn’t considered before the wilderness designation was made official, and some blamed it on pressure from the environmental community. But the conversation quickly turned to what could be done now, and it was decided it would have to be effected through legislative intervention. The community agreed to contact the congressional delegation and send letters from the community water and acequia associations to make this request as soon as possible.

During this discussion, the Questa RD fire management officer explained that the wilderness designation does allow for prescribed burning in a wilderness area but that only “minimum management tools” can be used, which in his mind negated any possibility of doing a prescribed burn in the San Cristobal watershed: the amount of fuels there would make any fire too dangerous without access to all fire fighting options. Which brings up the issue of what options there are for fighting a naturally caused fire in a wilderness area and how the San Cristobal situation ties into the proposed Pecos Wilderness expansion. Apparently the Wilderness Act allows for “flexibility” in managing fires in wilderness areas but emphasizes that fire management should be geared towards allowing fire to function in its natural ecological role. As I wrote in a previous La Jicarita article,  while this policy may be good in theory, on-the-ground conditions in the Pecos Wilderness have created a new fire category called “too dangerous to fight” because of the build up of ground fuels and overstocked trees. The “too dangerous to fight” category seems likely to become the agency’s default position as so many fires become uncontrollable conflagrations when these ground conditions are exacerbated by drought and climate change.

Just a few days before the meeting in San Cristobal the New Mexico Wilderness Society released a Taos County survey, conducted by Third Eye Strategies out of the state of Virginia, asking 300 residents on the phone a series of questions to determine whether they support the proposed expansion of the Pecos Wilderness. According to the poll those surveyed expressed “overwhelming support.” I took a look at the survey (available on the Taos News website). It first asks a series of questions about the value of wilderness in general and then specifically about the Pecos Wilderness. It then states: “Now I am going to read you some statements some people have made about the Pecos wilderness. To save time, I am going to read you statements made by those who support expanding protection of the Pecos wilderness. Other people will be read statements by opponents One of the pro wilderness statements reads: “When remote wilderness areas are allowed to burn and regrow in their natural rhythm, it can reduce the severity and cost of wildfires. But wildfires can be fought in wilderness areas when necessary.” So, this statement, supposedly “made by those who support expanding protection of the Pecos wilderness” fails to address the situation the USFS finds itself in with fires “too dangerous to fight.”

I spoke with several folks in the Peñasco area who had been called in the survey. One of them also questioned the way the survey was presented. She told me the interviewer failed to identify what the survey was about at the outset of the conversation and felt that the initial questions asking generally if she supported “public lands, forests, and open space” were devised to prep her to support the more specific Pecos Wilderness expansion.

I wrote an e-mail to Stephen Claremont of Third Eye Strategies and asked him for more information regarding the methodology used in the survey but haven’t heard back.

A survey like this doesn’t expand the conversation about what exactly constitutes wilderness or the ramifications of its designation (or accurately reflect people’s more nuanced feelings about it), but I suspect the New Mexico Wilderness Alliance and Wilderness Society will use the results to try and convince the Taos County Commission to endorse the expansion at a hearing in October.

Hannah Miller, a contractor to the Rio Grande Water Fund, is the community liaison for the Kiowa San Cristobal project and can be reached at hannahmillerconslting@gmail.com.

 

 

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2 comments

  1. Not very objective “reporting.” I’d like to see more opinions from forestry personnel or others concerned before I believed the San Cristobal watershed was doomed because of Wilderness designation. This story obviously reports one side.

  2. It looks to me like she is reporting on potential problems inherent in wilderness designation. As such, the article seems complete enough. I can readily dig up other viewpoints, both “for” and “against” expanding the Pecos Wilderness area.

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