New Flame: Are we ready for another Las Conchas?

Thanks to Matthew Koehler for finding this article in the Santa Fe Reporter. It is too long too include here, but not so long it isn’t worth reading. From a quick read, I like the fact that it explores the daunting nature of the challenges that face us without finger-pointing.

Note: BLM and FS were capable of sharing resources across boundaries as part of the Service First initiative, so hopefully someone can further explain why some agencies can in some areas and other agencies in other places have trouble..

13 thoughts on “New Flame: Are we ready for another Las Conchas?”

  1. Kumbya. Great story about all the smoke in the air in pre-settlement times-and you’re worried about particulates and haze from the Four Corners power plant? Love the insight about living on the Mesa’s to get out of the smoke. The Santa Fe hasn’t “commercially thinned” anything since 2007-when it “thinned” 200 acres-for the whole fiscal year. For the last several years, the only “timber” it cut or sold has been personal use firewood permits”. I would imagine it has done “pre-commercial thinning” of trees under 9 inches, at $1,000/acre. Hardly the scale needed to “turn back the clock” in their forest. It’s going to have to get a lot worse before it get’s any better. All the feel good colaboration in the World hasn’t brought any real industry back-for the last 20 years.

  2. This reminds me of the controversy in southern Utah and Idaho where I witnessed similar friction between the Forest Service and the Park Service. Justification at the time was the Department of Interior and the USDA split, administratively.Since that time we have seen one of the worst fires in Yellowstone National Park.

    l hope and believe that the information in this article indicates a new awareness that policy, management and cooperation changes need to, and will, accommodate this overwhelming evidence.

    • Michael-
      I think the FS was always in USDA. Not sure what you mean by USDA and Interior splitting?.

      There are a few quibbles I didn’t get around to mentioning, as in these paragraphs.

      That conflict points to the fundamental differences in the two agencies’ missions that stem from their historical roles. The Forest Service is part of the US Department of Agriculture—hence the frequent use of Forest Service lands for grazing—while the Park Service belongs to the US Department of the Interior.

      Though the agencies’ missions often coincide, Ribe says they also compete for land and resources.

      “You run into it all the time: One agency feels like the other one is incapable or screwed up in one way or another,” Ribe says. “They’re very jealous of each other because the Forest Service is always losing land to the Park Service.”

      1) if the FS has grazing because it’s in the Dept of Ag, why does the BLM have (even more) grazing?

      2) In my opinion, we have a great opportunity to integrate the efforts of the different land management agencies and avoid duplication, etc. (sometimes it’s embarrassing to be a fed when we go to a state meeting and trot out independent programs for each agency that sound like exactly the same thing). If I were in Congress, I would work on approaches to that to save bucks, say give research money for a topic to one agency, for another topic to another agency. How many different downscaled models do you need for one patch of ground?

  3. A glaring omission in the article is a discussion of Let-Burn fires, their ineffectiveness, and their track record of not staying contained. I even wonder if Federal employees have been told not to discuss the situation. Also not discussed is the liability issues of prescribed fires and Let Burn fires. Some of the public doesn’t even realize that the Feds are allowed to put the public at-risk, without any danger of lawsuits when these fires inevitably escape. The “benefits” of barely-controlled wildfires allowed to burn are REALLY oversold, do not justify the severe risks and do not follow cornerstone environmental laws.

    • Frodo, You say the benefits of fire are “REALLY oversold.” In the existing framework dominated by fire suppression managed by the fire industrial complex, its the benefits of fire fighting that are oversold. There is still a vast deficit of fire on the landscapes of the western U.S. I can’t see the benefits of fire being oversold until fire exceeds its historic role.

      • I’m saying, “Gollum”, that killing vast swaths of 200 year old trees isn’t “natural”, beneficial or desirable but, yet, that is what is currently happening. Setting aside up to 100,000 acre chunks, solely for burning, is not in the public interest, or beneficial for the wildlife within that huge area, including endangered species. You cannot say our forests’ current condition is “natural”. So, why say that wildfires burning in such “unnatural” forests are “natural and beneficial”?!?

        And, BTW, misquoting me doesn’t lend itself to earning trust and respect. It’s good to carefully read what you are responding to.

  4. I worked on the Santa Fe National Forest on the Jemez District (where the Las Conchas Fire started) for several years. When I started, there was a lot of friction and tit-for-tat between the Forest Service and the Park Service due to diagreements between the local Park Supervisor and local FS leadership about grazing (fence maintenance and wandering cows/burros), wildfire management, and emergency rehabilitation after wildfires. The Cerro Grande Fire of 2000, which was a controlled burn that got out of control on the Park Service managed land didn’t help this situation at all. This conflict lasted for about a decade, but seems to have gone away since all the leadership has been replaced with new people without personal grudges.

    In the past several years I feel that Bandelier National Monument and the Santa Fe National Forest have worked very well together on trying to address issues of restoration and management of wildfire across boundaries – a great example of which is the San Miguel Fire of 2009.

    Despite the historical interagency schism, I have to agree with derek that the issue is much more a matter of economics rather than cooperation. In my opinion, the cooperation/conflict issue is ant compared to the elephant issue that is economics. By the time I left that Forest as the NEPA coordinator we had tens of thousands of acres of NEPA-cleared areas to treat and very limited money to treat it. We would advertise stewardship contracts and sales, which never successfully resulted in a contract. In the end we ended up spending all of our dollars on service contracts paying around $800/acre for thinning. That adds up rather quickly and doesn’t go very far when you’re talking about a landscape with several hundred thousand acres with restoration needs.

  5. We’ve been missing a “correspondent” in Region 3, MD. Welcome!

    I’ve had similar experience while working on the Hat Creek RD of the Lassen NF. A few years before I arrived, there was a wildfire burning in Lassen National Park, near the northern boundary. Park officials deemed it wasn’t a hazard to any Park resources so, the fire was left to burn. The Forest Service was concerned about its fuels, rate of spread, direction, etc. As the fire approached the boundary, its intensity made it impossible to stop. After that, the Park and the RD came to an agreement to consult and manage. When I was there, the Forest Service manned an engine at Manzanita Lake. I did get to go on a fire in the Park while filling in on that engine. When we got to the fire, it was barely burning in a huge red fir, split down the middle, from top to bottom. They did call in a professional faller to get it on the ground. The fire had very little potential for spread, as the soil was quite “ash-ey” It was near the boundary, and no one wanted to take chances..

    Would a rightsized moulding mill for larger pine, coupled with one or two small log mills, and maybe a biomass facility or two, statewide, be a solution, MD? The mills would have to work together, to take both the profitable excess sawlogs, AND the small diameter thinnings, AND the logging slash, all at once. I could foresee a one-shift specialty sawlog mill sized only to process a sustainable annual amount of old growth logs (18-24″ dbh). In the next 20 years, there could be a big glut of that old growth coming from salvage sales, like we might be seeing on the Wallow fire. Finding ways to manage such a supply of logs would be a challenge but, temporarily adding a shift could even out things. (Yes, I know it sounds like BAU but, that is why I want to emphasize “right-sized). Packaging excess sawlogs within submerchantable thinning projects makes sense. The biggest question would be; what defines “excess”? I will leave that to the experts who live and work there.

  6. I guess we’ll see. As part of the 4 Forest Restoration Initiative the FS has issued a request for proposals for about 300,000 acres over the next ten years. Since the large majority of the trees are less than 16″ diameter, small-log processing and products are the key part of the solution. Seems like there was some success from the White Mountains Stewardship Project, but even that effort was largely dependent on pay-for-treatment.

    It seems that in areas like the SW where thereare few mills, the price of oil has more influence than the preponderance of big trees for things to work economically.

  7. The Las Conchas fire burned adjacent to something called the Jemez Mountain Collaborative. It’s a pet project of New Mexico Sen. Bingaman and calls for thinning 100,000 acres. I find it ironic that Sen. Bingaman wouldn’t let Montana Sen. Tester’s Beaverhead Partnership out of his committee because Bingaman was “uncomfortable” with the “timber harvest mandates” in Tester’s bill, and yet Bingaman has NO timber industry to speak of. Perhaps if the next fire burns up the Jemez collaborative before the timber industry returns, Bingaman may change his tune about harvest mandates.

    I’ve read the EIS for the Jemez mountain collaborative. It’s full of kumbaya retoric about social license, zones of agreement, appropriate scaled industry,16″ diameter caps and yet only a few sentences are devoted to “attracting industry” to use the wood. And those sentences dismiss any concerns and optimistically presume that industry will flock to this new source of timber-so don’t worry,be happy (do bankers even attend these collaborative efforts). Look,I don’t want to denigrate anyone for changing their minds or investing time in these collaborative efforts-but at the end of the day the reality is it’s all moot unless you get industry to come back. And nobody talks about that.

    As MD says, we’ll have to wait and see. If in the next five years a couple more fires burn off the Santa Fe and industry still hasn’t moved in to do the large scale thinning, then the emphasis will switch from obtaining a social license from the WEG and move to “attracting the timber industry back”. I wouldn’t be surprised if Sen. Bingaman leads the efforts to return to the good old “20 year timber supply contracts” and Solyndra like loan guarentees.

    I don’t know if a USFS default on a stewardship contract would be a guarentee to pay for a sawmill? Does the 4 Forest Restoration Initiative “EIS” guarentee that timber sales won’t be litigated, or can individual projects within that “umbrella EIS” still be appealed and litigated? Would five years worth of NEPA completed,decision noticed, appeal free, non litigatable(is that a word) projects be enough to reassure a banker. Certainly the USFS can’t prepare twenty years worth? Even with all that NEPA bullet proofing, weren’t the timber sales that Judge Muecke slapped a MSO injunction on in 1995 also NEPA completed?
    What it will ultimately all boil down to is “will a banker loan money to a sawmill that’s dependent on the national forest for a long term timber supplier”.

    Of course I could be all wrong here. I’m speculating. Perhaps Mr. MD can share with us some insights as to why the timber industry hasn’t moved back?

    As far as the public embracing “a return to smoke filled summers on the Santa Fe” all I can say is they’ll react to it just like the public of 100 years ago. They’ll demand an end to it(I wonder what all that smoke would do to childhood asthma rates-oh well, since it’s natural it must be good for them).

  8. Hi Sharon,

    I left a post to let you know that we were in agreement regarding the FS being in the USDA and the Park Service in the Department of the Interior. (However, I was a member of a group which was addressed by a governmental representative about the same time I was working in Idaho and Utah, that the FS was going to be separated from the USDA .And, the budget for the new Forest Service Department would be doubled – and thousands of more jobs would be created! But that never happened).

    Due to this administrative separation, different management policies may, and do, exit, making what would seem to be obvious cooperation opportunities at the local level, not achievable. Research in the Southwest Research Station on fire and fuel load per acre and how to address them, is working to bring some of these issues to light.

    I laud this article which highlights a similar issue that, aids in the persuading process to Congressional members. of the urgency for the need for these cooperation opportunities at the local level to reach fruition.


    links for affiliates, government agencies and partners associated with the Fire Lab.
    Display #
    1 Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute
    The Aldo Leopold Wilderness Research Institute is the only Federal research group in the United States dedicated to the development and dissemination of knowledge needed to improve management of wilderness, parks, and similarly protected areas.
    Welcome to the website for the Extreme Fire Behavior Science Review and Synthesis Project. Funded by the Joint Fire Science Program, the goal of this project is to look at wildland fire extreme fire behavior (EFB) scientifically.
    3 Fire and Aviation Management
    The Fire and Aviation Management part of the USDA Forest Service is a diverse group of people working to advance technologies in fire management and suppression, maintain and improve the extremely efficient mobilization and tracking systems in place.
    4 Fire Behavior and Fire Danger Software (
    The fire behavior and fire danger systems described on are designed to be used by fire and land managers who have training and fire experience.
    5 Fire Effects Information System (FEIS)
    FEIS provides up-to-date information about fire effects on plants, lichens, and animals. The database contains literature reviews of about 900 plants, 7 lichens, about 100 animals, 17 Research Project Summaries, and 16 Kuchler plant communities.
    6 Fire Research and Management Exchange System (FRAMES)
    The Fire Research And Management Exchange System or FRAMES is a systematic method of exchanging information and transferring technology between wildland fire researchers, managers, and other stakeholders, making such data easy to access and use.
    7 Firewise
    This web site contains educational information for people who live or vacation in fire-prone areas of the United States.
    8 Forest Fire Laboratory, Pacific Southwest Research Station
    The Forest Fire Laboratory in Riverside, California, is a field research facility of the Pacific Southwest Research Station, headquartered in Albany, California with research in the broad areas of air quality, fire science, and recreation.
    9 Joint Fire Science Program (JFSP)
    The JFSP was established in 1998 to provide scientific information and support for wildland fuel and fire management programs. The program is a partnership of six federal agencies.
    10 Living with Fire
    Living with Fire is an educational game that puts you in the place of a fire manager, based on research and tools developed for real-world fire management.
    11 Missoula Technology and Development Center
    MTDC, one of four detached units of the Engineering Staff in Washington, DC, serves Forest Service Regions and cooperating Federal and State agencies. MTDC makes equipment, information, concepts, and ideas available to Federal and State agencies.
    12 The Montana Climate Office
    Serving Montana with up-to-date, easy access to climatological information and resources.
    13 National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC)
    The National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC), located in Boise, Idaho, is the nation’s support center for wildland firefighting. Created in 1965, it utilizes cooperation from eight different agencies and organizations.
    14 Numerical Terradynamic Simulation Group (NTSG)
    NTSG is a lab pioneering new approaches for addressing regional ecological problems, integrating biometeorology, remote sensing, geographic information systems, and computer simulation with ecological analysis.
    15 Pacific Wildland Fire Sciences Laboratory, Pacific Northwest Research Station
    The Pacific Wildland Fire Sciences Lab leads research on impacts of fire on air quality and visibility, wildfire and ecology research, effects of fire on air, impacts of smoke on human health, and social research (rural and urban wildland interface).
    16 Systems for Environmental Management (SEM)
    A Montana nonprofit research and educational corporation for over 29 years, SEM has specialized in issues concerning wildland fire planning, behavior, fuel, weather, and effects.
    17 University of Montana – School of Forestry
    Official website of the University of Montana College of Forestry and Conservation.
    18 Western Region Climate Center
    The Western Regional Climate Center disseminates high quality climate data and information pertaining to the western United States.
    19 Official website of the University of Idaho College of Natural Resources Wildland Fire Program
    Official website of the University of Idaho College of Natural Resources Wildland Fire Program.
    20 US FS Research Publications

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    • Thanks, Michael, I am a big fan of the Joint Fire Science Program model. I’m interested in any situations you uncover that make it difficult for agencies to work together.


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