By KAY MATTHEWS
The Rio de las Trampas Forest Council has been working diligently since the beginning of the year to reestablish the forest stewardship program that was run by the Camino Real Ranger District’s Forest Technician Henry Lopez. Under this program community members were allotted approximately one-acre blocks that needed to be thinned and could provide firewood and other forest products to our forest dependent communities. Most of the stewardship blocks were within the wildland/urban interface, which worked to protect communities against catastrophic fire, helped restore watersheds, and provide economic benefit to the community.
U.S. Forest Service budget constraints have severely limited that agency’s ability to address crucial forest restoration needs. Recognizing this need, The Nature Conservancy established the Rio Grande Water Fund, a collaborative effort among a group of private and public organizations to restore forested lands in the Rio Grande corridor. This fund currently underwrites restoration projects in the northern part of Taos County but wanted to extend work into the Peñasco area and Embudo watershed. After several preliminary meetings were held in late 2018, coordinated by Forest Stewards Guild, it was decided to focus on the 246 forest acres near the village of Las Trampas that had been released under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).
The Rio de las Trampas Forest Council was formed by volunteers from El Valle, Chamisal, and Las Trampas to establish a stewardship pilot project whereby permits are issued to leñeros, or woodcutters, to thin one-acre forest plots according to forest restoration prescriptions established by the Camino Real Ranger District. The “leave” trees in the blocks are marked and the leñeros are responsible for cutting all other trees more than three inches in diameter. Not only are they able to use the wood for personal use or to sell, but are paid $300 upon satisfactory completion of the prescribed work in the plot (they have one year to complete the work). Leñeros are considered contractors and sign an accident waiver and release of liability form under the aegis of Forest Steward’s Guild, which is the non-profit fiscal sponsor of this pilot project.
Now, just as the Forest Council (disclaimer: I’m a member of the Council) is ready to accept applications from leñeros, a U.S. District Court Judge in Arizona has issued an order to stop all timber activity on five New Mexico and one Arizona forests in U.S. Forest Service Region 3 in response to a 2013 lawsuit filed by WildEarth Guardians of Santa Fe over the Mexican spotted owl. Sound familiar? The same environmental group, formally known as Forest Guardians, filed a similar lawsuit in 1995 that shut down the Region 3 forests for 18 months before a settlement was negotiated. The timing, and extent, of this lawsuit, just as the one in 1995, couldn’t be worse: at the height of the fuelwood season a lawsuit whose claimed purpose is the recovery of the Mexican spotted owl will shut down critical forest restoration projects (sponsored under the aegis of other environmental organizations) that also provide critical community firewood. “Timber actions such as sales, stewardship contracts, planned prescribed fire activities, and the issuance and implementation of active and new commercial and personal-use forest product permits may be affected,” according to a statement put out by the U.S Forest Service Regional Office. The Camino Real Ranger District stopped the sales of fuelwood permits on Monday, September 23, including those for the Rio de Las Trampas Forest Council leñero program.
WildEarth Guardia’s lawsuit specifically claims that the Forest Service has failed to monitor the Mexican spotted owl, listed as a Threatened Species in 1993, thereby failing to assess its recovery and possible delisting. I called the Regional Office to get more information on exactly what timber activities will be affected, and if there is any monitoring data available for the Carson National Forest, but all they sent me was the announcement on their website that says, “We will continue to work to meet our consultation responsibilities under the Court’s Order as quickly as possible, as we are fully committed to continuing efforts for the recovery of the Mexican spotted owl.”
This morning, the Forest Service released a statement that the Santa Fe National Forest is working with the Bureau of Land Management to sell fuelwood permits out of the Cuba Ranger District and the Jemez Ranger District is preparing to do the same. They provided a link to acquire the permits online. No word yet from the Carson.
The Rio de Las Trampas Forest Council has already hired a Forest Mayordomo and Asistante to administer the pilot project. They are responsible for marking the boundaries of the stewardship blocks to assign to each leñero; working with the Forest Service to mark the “leave” trees; monitoring the work conducted by the leñeros; and maintaining accurate records. The mayordomo and asistante, in conjunction with staff from the Camino Real, set the boundary markers for an initial 30-acre plot on September 17 and 18. They then planned to mark the “leave” trees in each block.
The Forest Council has compiled a list of those who have expressed interest in becoming a leñero (through sign-ups at the Camino Real Ranger Station and word of mouth) and have now completed a leñero job description and registration form that is available by contacting the mayordomo or asistante. The packet provides detailed information regarding requirements for leñeros that includes a Worker Safety Training Course, which is scheduled for October 4-6 at Picuris Pueblo. Despite the court order, this training will still be offered. Certification from the course is good for a year and is renewable.
Because of the time constraints in getting the program off the ground this year, and now the court-ordered shut down, other training courses can be scheduled next spring. The Council encourages interested folks to submit leñero registration forms despite the uncertainly of when work can commence. Hopefully, fuelwood areas and restoration work will be negotiated out of the order while the lawsuit proceeds. The Council will be calling folks on the list this week to let them know about the training.
If you are interested in becoming a leñero please contact:
You may also contact Rio de Las Trampas Forest Council members with any questions:
Alex and Ruby Lopez: 505 689-2408
Arnold Lopez: 575 224-5719
Marty Peale: 505 629-2305
Kay Matthews: 505 689-2200