Fall is Here. Where’s the Firewood?

By KAY MATTHEWS

A few months ago, in the March 24 La Jicarita issue “Is the Forest Service the Next Public Body to Join the Privatization Movement,” I essentially answered yes. Increasingly dependent upon non-profits and private contractors to provide the restoration and thinning work that is so desperately needed, the agency has essentially abrogated its motto: “Caring for the land and serving the people.”

The ambiguity of this so-called mandate has been evident for many years in the eyes of norteños: We question the agency’s very existence when it implements policies that negatively affect the cultural traditions of our former land grants but then complain when it isn’t sufficiently serving the people with firewood, fire protection, and watershed management, which is what my previous article delineated. I pointed out that if the agency continues to be underfunded and depends upon non-profits and auxiliary funding like the Collaborative Forest Restoration Program (CFRP), then the scale of these projects is going to have to expand exponentially.

In a subsequent article in June, “Taos County and Carson NF Collaborate onForest Restoration,” I reported on a new partnership called the Master Good Neighbor Agreement Between the County of Taos and the USDA Forest Service, Carson National Forest. This agreement makes it possible for the Forest Service to transfer funds to Taos County to perform specific project work, including forest restoration, hazardous fuels reduction, stream restoration, and road/trail maintenance on Forest Service lands. The need for this kind of cooperation is obvious: Carson National Forest manages 37 percent of the land within Taos County. A collaboration with the county could bring all these projects under one umbrella and make for a more streamlined effort to accomplish the needed work. We shall see if FS funding, combined with the county’s organizational help, will be able to get the work done.

Recently, the on-the-ground projects funded by non-profits and CFRP funding met to assess the work they’ve been doing and share their hopes for the future. Convened by J.R. Logan, the Taos County Wildland Urban Interface Coordinator, the three Taos County groups currently utilizing the mayordomo/leñero model of stewardship restoration blocks to provide fuelwood for local communities attended: the Cerro Negro Forest Council, the Rio de Las Trampas Forest Council, and the Santa Barbara Land Grant.

Bonafacio Vasquez of the Santa Barbara Land Grant delineated his project’s three goals: 1) to provide firewood for Peñasco area residents; 2) to improve the health of the Rio Embudo watershed; and 3) to reduce the threat of wildfire. The land grant initially hoped to receive CFRP funding for restoration work in Santa Barbara Canyon, but instead, with J.R. Logan’s help, they were able to initiate a program on Copper Mountain near Picuris Pueblo with funding from Taos County (Vasquez especially thanked District 5 Commissioner Candyce O’Donnell for her support). They’re currently working on 10 acres of state trust land, hoping to expand to 50 acres next year.

The land grant mayordomo for the project is Henry Lopez, who ran the contract stewardship program on the Camino Real Ranger District, which serves as the template for these newer projects. He described the Santa Barbara project as being mostly piñon/juniper with difficult access because many of the cutting units are away from the road, but leñeros from Peñasco and Truchas have cut all but two blocks. The land grant has been able to get liability insurance from the state because of its status as a subdivision of the state.

As a board member of the Rio de Las Trampas Forest Council, I provided a summary of the work we’ve accomplished on our initial 30 acres of piñon/juniper woodland between El Valle and Las Trampas. We recently qualified for a CFRP grant to thin an additional 216 acres. Under the fiscal sponsorship of Forest Steward Guild (funded by the Nature Conservancy’s Rio Grande Water Fund) we’ve provided safety training and cutting units for local leñeros, but it’s been slow going (Henry Lopez pointed out that the Forest Service should provide the training). I summarized why. First, the Forest Service has traditionally provided green fuelwood areas of predominantly ponderosa pine; our wood cutters, while paid a $300 stipend upon completion of their unit, are thinning smaller diameter piñon that takes more time and effort. Second, because of a liability requirement, leñeros, who are generally experienced woodcutters, are reluctant to take the safety training course. In summary, because the FS is currently issuing only dead and down permits, with no green fuelwood available other than our mayordomo/leñero projects, there is rampant poaching, essentially criminalizing those who don’t have access to firewood.

J.R. Logan, founding board member of the Cerro Negro Forest Council, wrote the CFRP grant in 2018 that funds this mayordomo/leñero project in the Valdez/San Cristobal area. He admitted that writing and meeting the terms of the grant and overseeing its implementation has been onerous, but after three years of finding reliable leñeros, 100 have completed their units and been paid (Art Montoya, mayordomo of the Cerro Negro, called the unreliable ones the “wannabe leñeros” who abandon their blocks). Forty acres near Valdez and 30 near San Cristobal have been completed, with 50 in progress. One of the problems the Cerro Negro has encountered is nearby private property owners who complain about the noise and traffic next to their homes (ignoring the fact that the noise and traffic next to their homes might help prevent them from burning down).

The group as a whole discussed how the Master Good Neighbor Agreement between Taos County and the Forest Service might help address many of the problems expressed at the meeting, particularly in terms of priorities, e.g., where the work is most needed and who is capable of getting it done. Bonafacio Vasquez suggested that every forest district needs to appoint a “senior mayordomo,” the position Henry Lopez previously held on the Camino Real RD to manage small products and the cultural needs of the communities.

After this day discussing all the problems we’ve faced and the successes we’ve had, I decided to go out on a tour of Hart Allex’s private woodlot of 285 acres, Ojito de Caballos Ranch, on Llano de la Yegua (Llegua) for some positive reinforcement. State Forestry out of Cimarron is a consultant on the project. Allex has been selling the product—mostly ponderosa—of his vast thinning efforts for many years to the community (including me): he averages about 450 customers a year. Last year’s sale to 670 people set a record. Of the 285 acres he’s acquired over the years, 258 are thinned and flourishing with grasses and shrubs for the elk and cattle who graze the property. Aspen meadows provide forage for deer and seeps provide drinking water for all the animals. Slash is stacked and burned, usually in February, March, and November.

Thinning and stacking the slash at Ojito de Caballos Ranch. Photo by Hart Allex
Restored. Photo by Hart Allex
Aspen meadow. Photo by Hart Allex

As we toured the property the openings in the forest provided stunning views of Wheeler Peak to the north and west across the Rio Santa Barbara to the Pedernal. But Allex pointed out tiny ponderosa trees growing in the clearings. He noted that without the natural ground fires that used to move through the woodlands, creating these openings, in 50 years time they will need to be thinned again. It’s a daunting future as we struggle to thin the vast amount of over stocked forests on both private and Forest Service lands all over northern New Mexico.

Unrestored. Photo by Hart Allex

His crew of seven—three sawyers and four pilers (who are women)—are currently finishing up a NRCS cost share thinning program on a neighbor’s land but will be back at Allex’s ranch to start work on a 27 acre lot that borders Forest Service land. Allex’s crew fells and bucks the trees that are gathered by the locals who manage to navigate the diverse terrain of hills and canyons to load their trucks. He charges by the size of the wood load, usually from $60 to $80.

You can contact him via phone or email to find out when the ranch is open and wood available:

Phone: 575 587-0143 (landline); 505 660-0675 (cell)

Email: aharta@aol.com

 

 

 

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