Can cutting down trees protect New Mexico’s water?

That’s the title of an article from High Country News.

“The concept is to carefully thin forests on both public and private lands to reduce the intensity of wildfires, preventing the kind of inferno that erupted in the Las Conchas fire and protecting water systems from wildfire’s catastrophic aftermath.”

Funding comes from several sources, not just the USFS:

“The effort, called the Rio Grande Water Fund, has support from 52 cities, counties, water utilities and other groups. To date, the 2-year-old fund has raised $1.5 million and its partners have raised $7.4 million to treat a total of roughly 10,000 acres throughout the watershed of the Rio Grande River, from just south of Albuquerque to the Colorado border. Early money to kickstart the fund came from, among others: the U.S. Forest Service, a foundation run by hardware store Lowe’s, the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation and the Wyoming-based LOR Foundation (which also has provided financial support for the project for which this story was produced).”

The Nature Conservancy is playing a big role. Anyone here know what the Center Biological Diversity and other groups think of this?

4 Comments

  1. The lack of a market for small, low grade wood is “the” limiting factor preventing this high cost ($700 per acre!) treatment from doing the needed job. Strategically located, small dispersed biomass -fired power plants, using locally produced low-cost or “free” wood and producing renewable energy, would increase grid diversity and reliability while yielding multiple environmental benefits, ranging from local to global. Why aren’t large landowners (federal [especially USFS and BLM], state, private) joining forces to make this happen? Does any agency have the imagination, and resources, to take the leadership role?

  2. OK . . . so, let’s think beyond the $700/ac cost and calculate in the cost of that same acre lost to preventable or limitable catastrophic wildfire and determine the cost-benefit on that.

    All too often, the immediate cost is the only one factored into the short-term calculation, when we should really be making the cost-benefit determination by factoring in the long-term end game. In other words, let’s be thinking like forest managers rather than politicians.

    Proper thinning to optimal spacing for represented species and age class will leave more water in the ground, increasing stream flows throughout the year. It’s shouldn’t be limited to reducing fuel loads, because the optimal impact comes from ensuring water isn’t being wasted on overcrowded stands.

    Federalism, Tenth Amendment reserved powers, and local involvement from the local government level make the states and counties the most potentially powerful leadership sources for this. They can put the requisite pressure on the federal land management agencies to make it happen. Expecting USFS and BLM to take leadership on this hasn’t been working as well as it should. That may, in some part, be because they are the primary litigation magnets for anyone opposing fuels reduction and other management approaches that involve removing trees from the landscape.

    Biomass-fired power plants are a reasonable option, but you can bet that permitting and operation of them would be well-nigh impossible . . . particularly with the demand to reduce haze in the national parks.

  3. I have been visiting New Mexico for the last ten winters and observing current forest conditions in several areas. If one is truly concerned about water, they should visit Magdalena and learn about the detail of forest removal, deforestation, over the last 300 years. Back in the 1600’s, one family had a land grant from the King of Spain that was 2.2 million acres in size. At that time the valley was covered with large Ponderosa Pine stands and the prairie grass was waist deep. The land was rolling plains with no arroyo’s. Rain fall was adequate to support the forests and prairies and cattle and sheep grazing was profitable. In 1848 the lands were seeded to the United States by Mexico and significant development began by the timber industry. From 1848 to 1930, 5 major sawmills operated in the Magdalena area on 12 hour shifts. Today one can find only very limited number of Ponderosa Pine remaining, with the area trees primarily small scattered pinion pine and juniper. The area is now high desert with large arroyos throughout the lands, rainfall averaging only 8 inches per year and arrives predominately during July and August, grass is mainly clumps of bunch grass about 6 to 8 inches tall and requiring 40 acres to graze one cow for a year. The point being, the job is far more complicated than just keeping the forests cleaned up of dead fuels. There is a major lesson for us here however, it is unfortunately occurring in many areas throughout the world today. The science of forestry must step forward and begin managing the forests and not focus on managing the resources from the forests! INTENSIVE FOREST MANAGEMENT WITH A FOCUS ON FOREST COMMUNITIES, THEIR HEALTH AND DIVERSITY! PLANTATIONS, PARTICULARLY WITH NON-INDIGENOUS SPECIES, IS NOT THE ANSWER!

  4. Brian, a history of the state is a history of the West. You could have well been speaking of Reserve, New Mexico. A reserve of trees is no longer there. The plan sounds remarkably like fuels projects around the Feather River, CA but there’s no discussion of changes to land management. I would like to learn what benefits to the local soils would likely occur. As I recall, the intensive resource use from ranching, timbering, and lest we forget, early mining, took one heck of a toll on the state’s soils. BuRec sells water, USFS sells trees. Using the word ‘collaboration ‘ isn’t a selling point because the devil is in the details. Constructing co-gen plants for this project seems impractical if only because of its short life span if the project is to clear excess. If money to be made is a limiting factor, thin it, chip it and spread it over those struggling soils. The Federal land managers aren’t in the business of power generation. I doubt they have the authority. Excuse me if I am skeptical. A link to planning documents would be helpful.

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