Touring the Kiowa-San Cristobal Wildland/Urban Interface

By KAY MATTHEWS

The acronyms may boggle the mind—WUI, TSWCD, NMFIA SPA, FAWRA—but the fact that so many of the organizations they represent are working together on forest restoration projects gives one hope that work on the ground can actually get done.

J.R. Logan, Taos County Wildland/Urban Interface coordinator, brought us all together to tour the Kiowa-San Cristobal project where all these groups are collaborating on thinning piñon/juniper woodlands between the villages of San Cristobal and Valdez.

Click to enlarge

We first drove to the thinning site on the road to the Lawrence Ranch where everyone introduced themselves and explained what their part of the collaboration entails.

Gabe Romero, silviculturist on the Carson National Forest, told the group that this particular area was targeted years ago by the Questa Ranger District, whose main concern was preventing wildfire in this transition zone stocked with acres of trees up to 120 per acre so close to San Cristobal. After four years of planning the cash-strapped Forest Service was able to bring together what is called the Joint Chiefs Project, a collaboration of the NRCS (Natural Resources Conservation Service) and the Forest Service with a three-year grant to thin 496 acres. A service contractor from Oregon bid on the project in 2018, adhering to a prescription of 25 foot spacing, piling of slash for dead and down wood gathering, and pile burning during the colder months. The contractor, with a crew of immigrant labor, can thin 15 to 20 acres per day (someone in the group asked about compensation for the labor and was assured that the immigrants were being paid federally mandated wages).

Thinned Joint Chiefs acreage near San Cristobal.

While this is the largest contract offered by the Forest Service, the New Mexico Forest Industries Association (NMFIA) has broken down some of the designated NEPA-ready (National Environmental Policy Act) acreage into parcels that are more appropriate for smaller, local contractors. San Cristobal contractor Wood Sharks and Taos contractor Mark Schuetz have been thinning 200 acres in the project area. Jamie Tedesco, the owner of Wood Sharks, told the group that his crew was able to do much of the work during the 2020 COVID outbreak, which kept local people working close to home. NMFIA has also received Rio Grande Water Fund support to restore an additional 84 acres. The downside for local contractors is the reimbursement agreements that can take a long time to process for workers to get paid. The Master Good Neighbor Agreement Between the County of Taos and the USDA Forest Service, Carson National Forest that I wrote about previously, may be able to help facilitate a better payment model with monies dispersed directly by Taos County.

The Taos Soil and Water Conservation Service, which has been thinning private properties in the San Cristobal, Gallina, and Valdez communities was represented by Peter Vigil, director of the agency, who said that the they’ve been offering this cost-share program for 22 years, largely motivated by longtime TSWCD consultant Tony Benson, who emphasized the interface between watershed and forestry restoration. TSWCD collaborates with people who have formed Firewise communities that learn how to prevent wildfires before they occur; representatives of Firewise from Carson, Gallina, and El Salto attended the tour.

The group then moved on to the Cerro Negro Forest Council project over a rough dirt road to the ridgeline above Valdez. This project was the first in the Carson to replicate the previous contract stewardship program on the Camino Real Ranger District, whereby approximately one-acre plots are allocated to an individual to cut everything except the trees marked as “leave,” implementing a Forest Service restoration prescription. The Cerro Negro received CFRP funding to pay a mayordomo and leñeros to thin 275 acres, with the priority on piñon over the thick stands of juniper. The leñeros have a year’s time to finish their blocks and are paid $300 upon completion, along with all of the harvested wood.

Cerro Negro Forest Council thinning project area.

Several Cerro Negro leñeros met us at the cutting site and expressed differing opinions: some consider the work too hard because of the density of relatively small diameter trees while others appreciate the fact that the cutting units are close to where most of the leñeros live and the combination of $300 plus enough wood for the winter. The mayordomo, Art Montoya, told the group that there have been some problems with nearby homeowners, new to the area, complaining of the noise and dust generated by the wood cutting, but that once they see the opening up of the forest as a defensive mechanism against fire they come on board.

Everyone on the tour agreed that even with all the disparate partners and projects, the Forest Service must be better funded to meet the needs of the communities and ecosystem. Once the Recovery Act funding of 2010 was spent, the coffers remain empty. As Peter Vigil put it, cutting firewood is a “way of life” for norteños, with much more at stake in the larger scheme of things than our wood piles: our watersheds, the safety of our villages, our grazing and agricultural lands, and our ability to maintain a livelihood.

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