Margo Covington

 

 

In the medical industry, it has been proven time and again that preventive medicine is the least expensive and most cost-effective form of care. Helping people with proper diet and exercise is cheaper than treating diabetes.

 

For New Mexico, how to best leverage our natural resources to preserve our lands, trees and water, while also providing economic opportunities for our people, requires similar forethought. With the terrible fires of the last few years, each worse than the last, and predictions for more dire conditions, there are some innovative options worth considering:

 

Option A: Use the cost of fighting one day of a New Mexico catastrophic forest fire ($3–5 million) to create 500 jobs—a $17,500,000-per-year woody biomass industry for local New Mexicans. A major economic development program in northern New Mexico could be created now with a project that turns community liabilities (unhealthy forests, fire devastation, watershed vulnerability, wastes) into community assets (forest restoration, “fire-ready” communities, clean water, economic development). This initiative would also:

 

  • Improve the health and diversity of NM’s forest landscapes and watersheds
  • Replace costs associated with firefighting, property loss and ecosystem destruction with net revenue and job creation
  • Be key to developing a renewable-energy business sector in NM
  • On an ongoing basis, engage educational institutions across NM in the process (Institutions are eager for real-life educational opportunities for their students.
  • Educate students of all ages in the many aspects of sustainable utilization of woody biomass for energy and other wood-based products
  • Create a robust, sustainable and reliable energy and fuel resource for NM’s essential services and community power during supply disruptions
  • Provide users with the assessment tool they need to protect and utilize their woodland resources
  • Create the potential in the first five years of use for 400 – 1,200 new and permanent, direct, indirect and induced (restaurants, etc.) biomass-based jobs, resulting in $14 million to $42 million of new payroll (based on a current average salary of $35,000/year). These salaries would also directly enhance local tax bases and bonding capacities.
  • Further enable the robust development and implementation of NM renewable energy technologies now being researched in NM’s national labs, universities, community colleges, as well as by many eager entrepreneurs
  • Support a larger zero-waste economic development initiative in NM and enable a shift in focus toward an efficient and sustainable zero-waste economy
  • Be a replicable tool for forest restoration across the US and the world

 

There are two other possibilities for forest thinning and watershed restoration:

Option B: Brent Racher, biomass specialist under contract to NM State Forestry Division, estimates the state could spend $50 million a year for the next 40 years to restore the forests. The huge amounts of thinning that must be done on a landscape scale, costing taxpayer dollars, would generate veritable mountains of waste wood, a fire risk in itself, especially when many of those piles of “slash” are burned. That is how the Cerro Grande fire started—a “controlled” burn that went out of control.

 

Option C: Continue the current approach: Racher estimates that state and federal agencies are currently doing about a tenth of the treatments that need to be performed to restore our forests and make them fire-resilient. According to the NM State Forestry Division, the state of NM, in the last nine years, has spent $89 million fighting wildfires. The federal costs are much greater than that, and costs to the counties are not included in that number.

Even more stunning, according to a January 24, 2013 study, The Full Cost of New Mexico Wildfires by Impact DataSource of Austin, Texas, forest fires have resulted in losses estimated at $1.5 billion to the State of NM in the last four years alone. This figure is in addition to the normal fire-suppression costs and buildings losses.

Not only do we lose an enormous amount of water in fighting the fires; the watershed takes longer to recover, so we lose more of the water from the watershed, we lose healthy ecosystems, livelihoods, cultural sites and tourism, and decimate our future economy and livelihoods.

 

And so… because the biggest renewable resource we have in NM besides sun is woody biomass (thanks to forest fire suppression for 100-150 years), and because thinning and restoring our forests benefits water, agriculture, jobs and the economy; the least expensive option and the option for the most economic development becomes Option A. The most expensive and least economically beneficial option is what the state is doing now in regard to this potent opportunity: maintaining the status quo. As Brent Racher says, “It’s not whether we can afford to address the problem, it’s really whether we can afford not to.”

 

This Window of Opportunity is Narrowing. Out-of-state businesses with deep pockets are moving in. While they may help get this industry going, they decide when to stop thinning, or worse, “harvesting,” where they thin trees that should not be thinned. They also decide how many local jobs are created and how much of their profits stay here to restore our economy.

 

The woody biomass-to-renewable energy technologies have hit their “Kitty Hawk moment” and are being used around the world at scales and sizes that make sense in rural communities (that the out-of-state companies understand), but that few local communities yet know about. Santa Fe Community College has a robust curriculum that currently teaches some of these technologies.

 

The nonprofit organization I represent, Sustainable Communities, has the resources and groups organized to get this multidimensional initiative moving quickly if funding is provided.

 

We’d like to know:

 

What are you already doing to promote these ideas on your own?

 

What actions are you inspired to take to help advance such practical conservation?

 

Suggestions of funding options for this project are welcome.

Please contact us.

 

 

Margo Covington is executive director of Sustainable Communities ZERI, NM, Inc., a NM 501(c)3 dedicated to Bioregional Zero Waste Economic Development. She is also a 28-year consultant for green business and entrepreneurship. margo@covingtonconsulting.com,www.margocovington.com

 

 

 

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