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Preventing Fires, Before Everything’s Aflame

Editor’s note: Ari Phillips is a graduate student at the University of Texas pursuing a dual degree in journalism and policy studies. This summer he is traversing the Southwest to chronicle energy, environment and climate change. We’ll be highlighting his journey as he makes his way from Texas to California over the next two months.

By Ari Phillips

Wildfires have been national news this summer. Massive, destructive burns in Colorado and New Mexico have emblazoned websites and TV screens across the country. But just as the monsoon rains roll into the Southwest bringing much needed moisture, the nation’s gaze over the fires will move on, too. 

The wildfires are just the eye-catching flashpoint of a complex and ongoing process of forest management and restoration in the Southwest. Since the U.S. Forest Service began monitoring national forests in the region more than 100 years ago, protocols and best practices have been evolving alongside changing science and technology.

The recent Little Bear Fire outside of Ruidoso, N.M.
Credit: Ari Phillips.

With climate change and natural climate variability bringing warmer and drier conditions to the Southwest, those involved in forest management are working to make the region less prone to that most devastating of foe — the catastrophic wildfire — and the less well known aftereffects, such as flooding and erosion. Even as budgets are slashed and competition for revenue streams increases, organizations like the Forest Guild, based in Santa Fe, N.M., cobble together a number of programs aimed at reducing the risk of the kind of devastating fires already seen this year.

“We have whole landscapes in the Southwest that are essentially out-of-whack ecologically from what they were historically,” said Mike DeBonis, executive director of the Forest Guild, during our meeting at his office, located up a small stairwell off the Santa Fe plaza. “How can we change the trajectory of forests to put them in conditions where they are much healthier and can not only provide ecosystem benefits, but also withstand severe fire events?”

According to DeBonis, there’s a long history of forest mismanagement, or lack of management, in the Southwest, with the biggest problem being fire suppression. Fire suppression, especially in ponderosa pine and mixed-conifer areas, has created very different forest conditions than were historically present — conditions that are more susceptible to devastating fires rather than the less severe historical fires.

“Before the 1890s most forests in the Southwest had a cyclical, regular rhythm of light fires, a fire every 3 to 6 to maybe 15 years,” said William deBuys, longtime resident of Northern New Mexico and author of A Great Aridness: Climate Change and The Future of the Southwest. “The kinds of explosive, catastrophic fires we’re seeing today are an artifact to a very large degree of the cessation of that regular burn regime, the suppression of fire, and the build-up of fuels which can go off like a bomb under the right circumstances.”

With climate change those circumstances are showing up more often, and with them other side effects from the fires, such as flooding and watershed pollution.

Forest Guild executive director Mike DeBonis.
Credit: Ari Phillips.

“We have quicker runoff because there’s less vegetation on the ground impeding it,” said Dr. Andrew Egan, director of the New Mexico Forest and Watershed Restoration Institute (NMFWRI). “But the bigger problem is all the material and debris carried along in any flooding event that then leads to issues with municipal water filtration systems and those types of things. To me, the post-wildfire-monsoon-induced flooding is probably a bigger issue from the standpoint of public health and safety than the actual fire is, although the fire obviously can be, too.”

Both Egan and DeBonis have had to fight shrinking budgets just as the fires are getting bigger and more frequent. The NMFWRI budget from the federal government has decreased 40 percent over the past three years, whereas DeBonis cites growing competition for grant money and increased necessity of diversified revenue streams. But they find ways to make the resources have maximum impact.

The NMFWRI has been working with Native American tribes to train them to do the work that the institute does. Not only does this help build external capacity for the institute during a time when budgets are tight, but it also brings jobs to places like the Alamo Navajo Reservation near Socorro, N.M., where the combined unemployment and poverty rate is around 60 percent.

Alamo Reservation members are trained in tasks like timber marking, forest inventory, and using chainsaws so they can be employed by the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies and businesses doing that type of work. The NMFWRI also trains people to monitor restoration treatment and hazardous material reduction projects in the area are.

The recent Little Bear Fire outside of Ruidoso, N.M.
Credit: Ari Phillips.

The Forest Guild, a national organization of foresters and forest research professionals promoting ecologically, economically and socially responsible forestry, has been doing similar work with the Zunis in the Cibola National Forest in Southwestern New Mexico. In the 1980s the area had a traditional forest-products economy based on logging, and the Forest Guild is trying to help build back that capacity. In early 2012, the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program of the USDA Forest Service selected the Zuni Mountain Landscape Restoration project to receive $7.6 million in funding over 10 years. The project will treat approximately 56,000 acres to reduce potential wildfire threats and improve the watershed’s water quality and wildlife habitat, meanwhile supporting almost 100 jobs.

“The community side is that local people are needed to do work such as thinning,” DeBonis said. “The wood harvested from the thinning will be used by local businesses for endeavors such as home heating and wood pellet making.”

Addressing large-scale landscape forest restoration in the Southwest, and in turn preventing catastrophic fires and floods, has to be collaborative according to DeBonis. It involves outreach, education, long-term planning, solid management and openness to adaptation.

“The factors that impact forests are definitely changing,” DeBonis said. “Part of the challenge for us is incorporating new science into the management.”