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Managing forests lessens fire damage

BY MARTIN HAYNES

EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE MEMBER, RIO GRANDE WATER FUND AND BOARD MEMBER, N.M. BUSINESS WATER TASK FORCE

The fires raging throughout the West are another wake-up call that New Mexico’s forests are also at risk. I have deep empathy for the hundreds of families that lost a home, and hundreds of thousands whose favorite place to camp, fish or hunt has been devastated by these fires. And my deepest sympathies to those who have lost loved ones.

The Albuquerque Journal has covered this fire season in detail through many stories, but these specifically highlighted climate change — “Under Water and On Fire,” Sept. 21 — and the resulting health impacts of extended exposure to hazardous wildfire smoke — “Smoke Alarm,” Sept. 21. Both of these issues are relevant to how forests are actively managed in New Mexico. Climate change means hotter droughts that amplify the risk of wildfire in our forests, where natural fire cycles are already out of balance. So, it’s not a matter of if the fire or smoke will come, it’s when. But it isn’t totally out of our control.

Active forest management uses thinning and controlled burning to restore balance by removing excess fuels that have built up over the past century and stoke unnaturally severe wildfires. A massive effort happening right now in New Mexico, called the Rio Grande Water Fund (RGWF), is creating healthy forests using these tools, by employing science-based restoration prescriptions, bringing forests and fire back into balance, ready for a warmer climate.

To help protect our forests, the RGWF relies on a local ally. The Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority is a valued partner of and funder to The Nature Conservancy, manager of the RGWF. The Water Authority’s 100year water plan, WATER 2120, to protect and enhance the water supply for its customers includes watershed protection. The visionary work has developed and funded a strategy to protect the watersheds that supply the majority of our water. This long-term planning will provide a steady supply of clean water to support communities and local economies. But we don’t have to wait 100 years to see the benefits of this type of work.

Even in a dry year like 2020 these restoration treatments work. For example, in August of this year, the Medio Fire ignited near Santa Fe, on the ancestral lands of Tesuque Pueblo. The fire burned into an area where the Forest Service had previously cut out many small trees that would have otherwise served as kindling for the fire. Next, firefighters performed a controlled burn in the same area to reintroduce “good fire” to the forest. This proactive work allowed firefighters to keep the Medio wildfire small. This type of active management supports forests that are resilient to low-severity fire and helps prevent the extreme “megafires” that wipe out towns and forests on a scale of hundreds or thousands of square miles.

As our communities consider how active forest management will impact them, we hope they consider that a healthy forest provides clean water for people, irrigation for crops, habitat for fish and wildlife, recreation for millions, and jobs for many. Of course, smoke is a by-product of any fire. But with controlled burns, there is dramatically less smoke than a wildfire and we can prepare for them ahead of time, reducing the potential health impacts from prolonged exposure to wildfire smoke.

In the future, the Conservancy, the Water Authority and the other 86 signatory partners of the RGWF look to expand their work to include the tributaries and watersheds through which our water travels on its way to Albuquerque. Please support our federal, state and local partners as they make our forests healthier, allowing us all to enjoy New Mexico’s beautiful landscape in the decades ahead.

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