By KAY MATTHEWS
Congratulations are in order. The Rio de Las Trampas Forest Council’s restoration proposal to the Collaborative Forest Restoration Program (CFRP) was rated number 1 by the review panel on September 24. The Council requested $356,561 over three years to expand its work to 216 additional acres from the 30 acres already being thinned in the Las Trampas/El Valle area (with a grant from the Rio Grande Water Fund). This work helps create a more resilient forest to mitigate catastrophic fire, provide fuelwood and forest products to the communities, improve watershed conditions, and provide economic opportunity. (Disclosure: I’m on the Rio de Las Trampas Council).
The Council began as a pilot project in collaboration with the Forest Service and the non-profit conservation group Forest Stewards Guild but has its roots in the stewardship program on the Camino Real Ranger District overseen by Forestry Technician Henry Lopez. Under that program, Lopez assigned approximately one-acre forest blocks to individuals or families to cut everything on their acre except for the “leave” trees, or what the Forest Service had marked to meet the prescription needs of the area. Most of these stewardship blocks were in the Wildland/Urban Interface of our communities and provided personal firewood while meeting prescriptive restoration goals. After the demise of that program, the Cerro Negro Forest Council on the Questa Ranger District received a CRFP grant in 2018 to replicate the Camino Real program, utilizing the acequia mayordomo tradition to employ a “forest mayordomo” (with an asistente) as the on-the-ground manager.
Currently, the Rio de Las Trampas pilot project has eleven leñeros, or woodcutters, to work 30 acres of mostly piñon pine forest between the communities of El Valle and Las Trampas. The leñeros are paid $300 upon completion of their acres and may use the wood for personal use or sell. These acres were NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) cleared by Forest Stewards Guild almost 10 years ago as part of the 2011 CFRP Rio Trampas Watershed Multi-jurisdictional Forest Restoration Planning. The 216 acres included in the 2020 CFRP are also NEPA cleared and will be divided and marked by Camino Real staff to allow for additional economic opportunity for leñeros.
The stewardship program under the Camino Real was extremely popular with the local communities. Because the Wildland/Urban Interface units were close to villages, access to firewood was easy and village members also felt a proprietary connection to activity that was helping protect their communities from fire and increase acequia flows. The work is harder than in the traditional green fuelwood areas marked by the Forest Service, as all wood up to three inches in diameter must be removed. But local people like Maximo Gurule, the beloved former Peñasco school teacher, and Doug North (and Priscilla Lopez), the former Physician’s Assistant at Health Centers, are out there on the ground getting in their firewood. The mayordomo, Roderick Dominguez from Chamisal, is doing an excellent job making sure the leñeros are fulfilling the terms of their agreements.
The Collaborative Forest Restoration Act was introduced by Senator Jeff Bingaman in June of 1999 to provide monies (not more than $150,000 annually or $450,000 total) to collaborative groups of stakeholders for community restoration projects that would enhance forest health and biodiversity by “reducing the unnaturally high number and density of small diameter tress on Federal, State, and tribal forest lands.” The Act also supports sustainable community economies by promoting the use of small diameter trees, and supports collaborative partnerships. It was an attempt to compensate for reduced USFS funding and poor management practices, such as fire suppression, that created degraded forests.
CFRP funding has supported many projects in northern New Mexico over the years but there has always been a recognized need for expanded restoration on our overgrown forest lands and impacted watersheds. In the early 2000s a coalition of northern New Mexico community foresters formed what was called the New Mexico Community-Based Forestry Alliance. The alliance met with New Mexico congressional aids and Forest Service representatives to try to figure out how to ensure that CFRP and other restoration-directed monies were fairly dispersed without unnecessary replication of services and equipment and hit the ground in the most efficient ways possible. After several years of organizing, La Jicarita wrote an article detailing the demise of the alliance because of numerous setbacks, including lack of funding and progress.
In 2013 The Nature Conservancy’s (TNC) Rio Grande Basin Water Fund initiated 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 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 aimed 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. Since then the Fund has supported numerous projects in the Basin, including the Rio de Las Trampas Forest Council’s pilot project.
Now, years later, there is movement to create a forestry-wide Region 3 community based forestry program to improve the social, economic, and ecologic wellbeing for traditional residents of rural New Mexico. Letters were sent to the Region 3 forester by the Land Grant Council, Cerro Negro Forest Council, Rio de Las Trampas Forest Council, and other interested groups suggesting that the Forest Mayordomo model adopted by the Cerro Negro and Rio de Las Trampas councils could provide an opportunity to accomplish these objectives. The Land Grant Council is currently in consultation with Region 3 about how to achieve this goal.
Part of the impetus for the letters is the recent unpredictability surrounding the Collaborative Forest Restoration Program. Under the current administration there have been delays in reviewing both the 2019 and 2020 proposals and questions as to whether the program would actually be funded by Congress. As the Cerro Negro Council wrote in its letter to Region 3, “Our council and other organizations are very concerned about the future of CFRP, which has been incredibly successful at funding creative and locally relevant forestry work across the state for decades.”
So the news that the 2020 proposals were reviewed (the panel consists of both private and public forest-related officials) and that the Rio de Las Trampas proposal was at the top of the list is a relief. We’re ready to expand our work.