Putting People to Work in the Woods

By KAY MATTHEWS

I’ve been going through all my La Jicarita files—cassette tape interviews, video interviews and demonstrations, hundreds of photos, and thousands of paper files—to prepare for its archival at the Special Collections/Center for Southwest Research at Zimmerman Library, UNM. It’s been both a blessing and a curse: a wonderful reminder of the vast amount of political and environmental activity we covered in our 25 year publication run and a depressing account of all the failures we both witnessed and experienced.

This article is going to be about a specific issue that has a direct connection to many articles I’ve written in 2021: the failure of the Forest Service and associated non-profits, communities, and activists, despite great effort on many of their parts, to effectively combat the ecological degradation of our national forests by putting people to work.

As far back as 2001, community foresters and activists in northern New Mexico began to organize what came to be called the New Mexico Community-Based Forestry Alliance. It’s stated purpose was to bring community foresters together to ensure that forest restoration monies, appropriated after the Cerro Grande Fire, were fairly dispersed without unnecessary replication of services and equipment. The three monied projects were: Four Corners Sustainable Forest Partnership (a partnership of state forestry divisions and the USDA Forest Service); Title IV Community Assistance, Economic Action Programs (USDA Forest Service, Region 3); and the Community Forest Restoration Act (USDA Forest Service, Region 3).

We (La Jicarita was one of the organizers) began meeting with representatives of various stakeholders, including the Forest Service—regional down to district—State Forestry, Bureau of Land Management, U.S. Congressional aides, and foresters from all over el norte (Española, Mora, Peñasco, Las Vegas, Santa Fe) to address concerns raised over the allocation of these monies and establish a collaborative partnership. The Alliance asked these agencies to provide: 1) information on available grants; 2) information on proposed treatment projects; 3) status of NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process on the Carson and Santa Fe National Forests; and 4) information on potential contracting opportunities.

Over the next few years, the Alliance recruited community-based forestry organizations and developed a comprehensive proposal that incorporated the needs of its individual members to insure that the monies were fairly dispersed, that there was no unnecessary replication of services or equipment (large equipment could be shared by all community forestry groups), and that the money hit the ground in the most efficient way. The Alliance also planned to provide technical assistance to the member groups by employing grant writers, a marketer, business administrators to help with bookkeeping and management needs, and to provide a discounted group insurance plan. The Forest Service and other funders provided seed money to help with initial Alliance organizing: a steering committee was formed, an action plan formulated, and a Community Forest Restoration Program grant application was promulgated. The application was extensive, with a three year budget from 2002 to 2004: technical assistance (administrator, professional forester); outdoor training classroom; business development; education (young forester model, mentoring); equipment (chainsaws, wood mizer); monitoring; administration; workman’s comp; liability; insurance; legal services; and matching funds for a total of almost one million dollars.

The Alliance didn’t get the CFRP grant, a series of coordinators and legal advisors failed to implement organizational plans in a timely fashion, and many of the community foresters who had initially been enthusiastic about joining the Alliance became disillusioned with the process. In November of 2004 this is what La Jicarita had to say about the Alliance: “The failure of community-based forestry to become a viable part of economic and environmental sustainability in northern New Mexico is emblematic of the problems that pervade so many of our efforts to maintain our land-based communities. While there are isolated CFRP-funded success stories, those of us who were actively involved in the Collaborative Stewardship program that initiated real collaborative efforts among federal land managers, communities, and environmental groups hoped for a much broader and more effective result.”

Where are we now, in 2021? La Jicarita has written extensively over the past few months of the collaborative efforts among the disparate community-based groups trying to resurrect some semblance of what the long-ago Community-Based Forestry Alliance was trying to do: put people to work restoring the forest. Non-profits like The Nature Conservancy and Forest Stewards Guild have been working for years to get NEPA clearance on wildland/urban interface areas and watershed basins that desperately need thinning. The Rio Grande Water Fund and CFRP fund small, local thinning projects and forest council projects, like the one I’m on the board of, the Rio de Las Trampas Forest Council, a restoration project that resurrected the previous stewardship program on the Camino Real that provided one-acre blocks of forest for firewood. Another forest council works in the San Cristobal/Valdez area, the Cerro Negro Forest Council.

But where is the Forest Service? As I reported in the June 1, 2021 La Jicarita,  Carson National Forest and Taos County signed a partnership called the Master Good Neighbor Agreement, “a cooperative effort between the parties for authorized forest, rangeland, and watershed restoration services.” The 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 hope is that the county will be better able to coordinate these efforts than the piecemeal efforts I described previously. The 64,000 dollar question is, though, where is the Forest Service funding?

Talking with longtime El Valle neighbors the other day we were remembering when hiking the Pecos Wilderness we used to see wilderness patrols doing trail maintenance and public contact. Sometimes we’d see biologists out in the field doing plant or animal surveys. Forest Service trucks would regularly patrol the campgrounds for public contact and fire watch. The Camino Real staff included fire managers, fire crews, trail crews, biologists, recreation specialists, grazing specialists, siliviculturists, and all kinds of technicians. That is long gone. Once the timber dollars faded, so did the staff. After decades of fire suppression policy that contributed to overstocked forests, what little money left in Forest Service coffers is now ironically earmarked to fight the more intense fires we’re seeing all over the west. We can all agree the local FS offices are underfunded and hope that the infrastructure bill that calls for increased budgets for forest restoration work passes congress.

But that doesn’t obviate the agency’s responsibility towards the communities it serves. The fact that the Camino Real Ranger District has failed to provide enough fuelwood this year is the result of its longterm failure, discussed in this article, to conjoin this need with forest restoration. The writing has been on the wall for years. I don’t know if the clarion call throughout La Jicarita’s 25 year existence for better planning, better fire management to naturally thin overgrown stands, better outreach to the public on restoration ecology, better coordination with community-based foresters, and better allocation of existing funds has moved us much closer to our goal of forest resilience. But kudos to all those who have tried, and those who keep on trying.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

3 comments

  1. Kay Mathews, you are a hero of this northern NM region! I admire you so much!!! Jude

    Sent from my iPhone

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