Is the Forest Service the Next Public Body to Join the Privatization Movement?

By KAY MATTHEWS

For many years now La Jicarita has covered the crises in our New Mexico national forests hat are also representative of forests across the nation: mega-fires, urban invasion of wildlands, overstocking of small diameter trees, degraded watersheds, invasive species, and lack of firewood access for communities. Most of these issues can be attributed to both USDA Forest Service mismanagement and climate change, but instead of increased budget attention and more informed spending, what we see is continued reliance on non-profit and auxiliary funding to compensate for inaction.

I took a look at the USDA Forest Service budget for 2021: the overall budget of $5.3 billion reflects a decrease of $155.6 million from fiscal year 2020, almost across the board except for Wildland Fire Management ($2.4 billion, an increase of $47.6 from 2020), which should surprise no one. For years now, the FS has had to borrow monies from other projects to meet the growing costs of “suppressing” mega-fires across the west. I put quotation marks around “suppressing” as these fires are increasingly uncontrollable, whether the goal is to “suppress” the fire or “manage” it. While the budget also includes what is called the Wildfire Suppression Cap Adjustment increase of $90 million from 2020 to $2.04 billion, this doesn’t mean the Forest Service is going to be any more successful this year in saving forests or homes.

There has not only been plenty of disagreement over how best to manage these wildfires but also what is needed to prevent them in the first place, or what constitutes a healthy forest. I addressed this in a 2013 La Jicarita article with a quote from Eytan Krasilovsky of Forest Stewards Guild, a Santa Fe based non-profit: “If we can’t agree on a healthy forest, maybe we can talk about a resilient forest, watershed, or landscape. I imagine the conversation would start: (1) Are our forests, watersheds, and landscapes resilient to fire, pests, pathogens, and climate change? (2) Can/should we try to increase their resiliency? Then the conversation can move to how that might happen and what it might look like. I’d also like to add that there is a broad consensus among researchers and managers that ponderosa pine and dry mixed conifer forest types were frequent-fire dominated systems and that management is needed to address how ‘out-of-wack’ the majority of these forests are from their former, more sustainable selves.”

For years now the USDA had depended on specially funded programs to support forest restoration that can hopefully restore this resiliency.

• The Collaborative Forest Restoration Program (CFRP), initiated during former Senator Jeff Bingaman’s tenure in 2000, funds numerous restoration projects every year in all Southwest Region forests: currently the Cerro Negro Forest Council on the Questa Ranger District and the Rio de Las Trampas Forest Council on the Camino Real have CFRP funding. Both programs employ leñeros, or woodcutters, overseen by mayordomos, to thin all the unmarked trees to meet the Forest Service restoration prescription. The leñeros are paid per acre and also retain the harvested wood, mostly piñon, for personal use or to sell. These leñero programs have their roots in the stewardship program on the Camino Real Ranger District overseen by Forestry Technician Henry Lopez. Under that 15 year 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.

• The Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program allocated funding in 2010 for 10 large restoration projects across the country, including the Southwest Jemez Mountains Restoration Project.

• 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, of which I’m on the board.

But these programs, while much needed, cannot provide the amount of work that taxpayer money supposedly pays a federal agency like the Forest Service to accomplish, especially now, in the face of these ongoing crises.

A particularly egregious example of this is the Carson National Forest Camino Real Ranger District’s failure to provide enough fuelwood for the many communities that depend on it. There are a number of reasons for this, but the 2020 pandemic broke the already sagging camel’s back as the staff left the woods for home. In a zoom meeting with former District Ranger Sean Ferrell, who left the agency in March after a short tenure, and Gabe Romero, forestry silviculturist, the Rio de Las Trampas Forest Council questioned the FS about fuelwood management for this coming year.

Members of the Forest Council had apprised the Forest Service for months about illegal poaching of large diameter trees near the Council’s pilot program site between El Valle and Las Trampas. This can be directly attributed to the lack of access to dead and down trees: the Carson National Forest Travel Management Decision, implemented a decade ago, closed many roads that had been previously used to access dead and down firewood.

Ferrell noted that there is currently no law enforcement agent patrolling the district, although the El Rito Ranger District officer helped out last summer and a new agent for the district is being trained. But as former editor David Correia wrote in a 2012 La Jicarita article about the Santa Fe National Forest Travel Management Plan, “[Santa Fe National Forest Supervisor Maria] Garcia admits that the public is almost universally suspicious of the Forest Service’s ability to enforce any rule, much less a sweeping new rule such as the travel restrictions described in the new plan. Despite this suspicion you’ll find only one paragraph on enforcement in the record of decision. In it the Forest Service all but admits it can’t enforce the rules. Garcia just hopes that most people will follow the rules.’” While most of the Carson NF roads will remain closed, Gabe Romero did say that the district could open some abandoned roads if NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) assessments are done.

The other longstanding supply of firewood for the district is green fuelwood marked and managed by FS staff. Over the past few years fewer and fewer of these areas have been offered to the public, and at the meeting Ferrell told the council that the district is moving away from this option because of lack of staff, lack of NEPA ready areas, and abundance of smaller diameter timber as opposed to the preferred fuelwood of ponderosa pine. He stated, “We have to get out of green fuelwood management and transfer to the types of community projects you all are implementing.” Romero added that the district is working with thinning contractors and also going back into former green fuelwood areas to finish them up as secondary treatments, meaning cutting thinner trees and burning slash.

Our southern part of the district has many fewer NEPA ready lands for timber projects compared to the northern part. Under the umbrella of the Taos Valley Watershed Coalition, the Camino Real District has been focusing on the restoration projects identified by the Coalition for treatment: Pueblo Ridge and McGaffey Ridge. The Camino Real primarily relies on the 5,000 NEPA acres that were assessed under the Rio Trampas Watershed Restoration Project (funded by a Forest Guild CFRP grant) a decade ago. These acres, which include the current Rio de Las Trampas Forest Council pilot project and an additional 200 acres, are classified as restoration projects, not green fuelwood projects, and because of the lag time between NEPA assessments and implementation some acres will have to undergo wildlife resurveys.

The $64,000 question is whether this new FS focus on restoration and community- sponsored programs can supply the needed firewood on the district. CFRP funding is not necessarily stable: it has to be approved by Congress every year. Because the programs are administered by non-profits working under FS supervision, liability concerns require that leñeros take a safety training course, a three-day commitment that has inhibited the recruitment of leñero crews. J.R. Logan, the Wildland/Urban Interface Coordinator for Taos County (and board member of the Cerro Negro Council), initiated a supplemental mayordomo program administered by the Santa Barbara Land Grant, with funding through Taos County, which is currently working on a restoration project near Picuris Pueblo. Because land grants and acequias are subdivisions of the state, liability requirements under the state are less onerous. There also needs to be better communication between the FS and the communities of the need for leñero teams to work together to utilize smaller diameter trees to improve forest health and provide much needed fuelwood.

But it seems obvious if the Forest Service is going to rely on community restoration projects to supplant green fuelwood supply or dead and down access it’s going to have to expand the scale. In May of 2020 the New Mexico Land Grant Council, the Cerro Negro Forest Council, and the Rio de Las Trampas Forest Council all sent letters to the Region 3 Acting Regional Forest Supervisor urging her office to create a region-wide community-based forestry program based on the stewardship program piloted on the Camino Real Ranger District, previously referenced, that brought needed fuelwood into the local communities while thinning out the forest, improving the watershed, and reducing the potential destructiveness of a wildfire.

It also seems obvious the FS needs to pay for it. But when the question of Forest Service funding of leñero programs was raised in our meeting with the Camino Real staff, Ferrell said that because the FS funding and hiring process is a national one, the district wouldn’t be able to hire mayordomos and pay leñeros. All the more imperative that Region 3 take the lead in establishing a viable community-based forest program that is going to meet both restoration and fuelwood needs. In it’s letter to the Region 3 supervisor, New Mexico Land Grant Council also stated: “Land grants throughout New Mexico have for centuries depended on the forests that surround them to sustain their communities. Since the granting of the first community land grants-mercedes over three centuries ago, heirs have depended on access to forest resources to build and heat their homes. While most land grants have lost their fee-simple ownership of forested lands that were once a part of their common lands more than a century ago, their dependence on fuelwood and timber has remained. This connection villagers retain with the forests that surround them is remarkable, especially considering decades of restrictive policies that prioritized corporate and commercial use of national forests over local and community use.”   

 

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