What Does a Big Restoration Project Really Mean?

 

Phyllis Ashmead

 

Those living in northern New Mexico during the Las Conchas Fire will never forget when fire exploded across the southwest Jémez Mountains, roared through canyons and flaming out across the mesas. The fire started on June 26, 2011 near Las Conchas in the Valles Caldera National Preserve when winds toppled an aspen tree onto a power line. The rest is history.

 

In the first 13 hours, driven by strong and unpredictable winds, the fire burned 43,782 acres at a rate of about one acre per second. Wildlife that couldn’t run, fly or burrow deep enough perished in the flames. At that time the Las Conchas became the largest wildfire in NM history, burning a total of 156,590 acres, destroying 63 residences and 44 outbuildings. Suppression costs alone had a price tag of over $48 million.

 

In some areas, where it burned at high severity, authorities say it will be decades before the trees grow back, if ever. While summer monsoons following the fire brought much needed moisture, they also brought flash floods and landslides to burn-scarred areas. The fire and flooding had a huge effect on people’s property, livelihoods and drinking water, including impacts to the Dixon Apple Orchard, Santa Clara Pueblo, Cochiti Pueblo and Cochiti Lake.

 

Today, as the danger of uncharacteristically severe wildfires looms large across the state, the Santa Fe National Forest, together with the Valles Caldera National Preserve and Jémez Pueblo is proactively planning a landscape-level restoration project on 210,000 acres west of the Las Conchas Fire burn area. This includes 86,000 acres on the preserve, 110,000 acres on the national forest, and 14,000 acres on nearby state, private and Jémez Pueblo lands. The goal is to restore the landscape so that it is less susceptible to large-scale disturbances such as the Las Conchas Fire. Over time, the project will have far-reaching benefits to the people and wildlife whose lives and livelihoods depend on a more resilient landscape. This ambitious endeavor is called the Southwest Jemez Mountains Landscape Restoration Project.

 

Why is the project needed?

Most of the lands consist of historically fire-adapted forest ecosystems where fire has been excluded for over a century. As a result of fire exclusion and the extended drought, the now-overcrowded forests in the southwest Jémez Mountains are at high risk of uncharacteristically severe fires, like Las Conchas.

 

Proposal

The Southwest Jémez Mountains Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration project proposes to reduce the potential of uncharacteristically severe and intense wildfires while promoting the low-intensity, frequent surface fires that were once common across the landscape. To accomplish this, forests will be thinned, creating stands that have a mosaic of grassy openings, shrubs and groups of trees of various sizes and ages. This will allow forests to grow into old-growth ponderosa pine and mixed conifer stands. The Forest Service is engaging industry to help with thinning, and this in turn, may provide jobs in the local community.

 

The project will encourage growth of perennial grasses, shrubs and wildflowers in the understory that can carry low-intensity fire across the landscape and will reduce the amount of live and dead fuels available to wildfire. Activities identified in the proposal will improve the function of the stream and wildlife habitat. In addition to restoration activities, the project will also remove fuels around archeology sites, providing for their sustainability over time. The Valles Caldera National Preserve and the Santa Fe National Forest have separate National Environmental Policy Act documents that the public can provide comments on.

 

Wildlife Benefits

Improved conditions will not only benefit people living in and around the Jémez Mountains; wildlife too will benefit. These mountains support a great diversity of wildlife. Two species described here are at risk for habitat loss should there be a large-scale event. These are the Mexican spotted owl and the Jémez Mountains salamander. Here is a closer look at their lifestyles and how the project can benefit their habitat.

 

Mexican Spotted Owl (Strix occidentalis lucida)

In the Jémez Mountains, the Mexican spotted owl can be found in forested mountains and canyons with mature trees. They nest on ledges and holes carved in the steep-walled canyons. They are primarily nocturnal hunters and eat wood rats, mice, voles, rabbits, gophers, bats, birds, reptiles and bugs. They typically lay one-to-three eggs during the years they nest.

 

Mexican spotted owls were listed as endangered in 1993 due to habitat loss. Today its habitat is at an even greater risk in the Jémez Mountains due to the potential for a large-scale, high-intensity crown fire as seen in the 2011 Las Conchas Fire area. Other key problems affecting the owl habitat in this area are the lack of large, mature trees and not enough meadows that are home to the owl’s prey.

 

The Southwest Jémez Mountains Landscape Project proposes to improve the habitat for the Mexican spotted owl by reducing the risk of uncharacteristically large fires and insect attacks. By thinning the trees and creating forest stands with a mosaic of grassy openings, its foraging habitat will be improved. The overall goal of planning for more old-growth forests will have long-term benefits for the Mexican spotted owl.

 

Jémez Mountains Salamander (Plethodon neomexicanus)

The Jémez Mountains salamander is found only in northern NM in the Jémez Mountain range between 7,200 and 9,600 feet in mixed-conifer forests. This small, elusive amphibian spends most of its life hidden underground in moist soils, with good reason—it has no lungs and absorbs oxygen through its skin. These soils typically contain volcanic rock with deep horizontal and vertical cracks below the surface, where salamanders seek refuge from the cold frost of winter.

 

When the temperatures are warm and wet, typically June–August, it will find its way to the surface inside rotted coniferous logs or under rocks. At night, the Jémez Mountains salamander may venture out, walking softly on webbed feet, to hunt for ants, beetles, mites, spiders, earthworms and other small insects.

 

This land-dwelling animal does not require standing water at any stage of its life. It hatches fully-formed from the egg instead of going through a larval phase similar to a tadpole like other salamanders do.

 

On Sept. 12, 2012, the USFWS proposed to list the Jémez Mountains Salamander to endangered status. The primary threats to this rare creature include residential development; roads, trails and habitat loss; recreation; disease; chemical use, and climate changes. Years of fire exclusion have led to overgrown forests susceptible to uncharacteristic fires and high-intensity burns that scorch the soil. This can have profound effects on the salamanders’ ability to survive fires like the Las Conchas. Thinning the forest and promoting the low-intensity, frequent surface fires that were once common across the landscape will help restore the landscape and make it beneficial to the long-term survival of the salamander.

 

Southwest Jémez Mountains Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Project Benefits People, Forests and Wildlife

Activities restoring ecological and economic health to the Jémez Mountains will require a laser-like focus. It also means short-term sacrifices for long-term benefits. When people see logs coming down the road following forest thinning, or smoke in the air from prescribed fire, or find their favorite campsite is temporarily closed for rehabilitation, they will understand this is for restoration of the landscape to help move it to a more healthy condition compared to what it is in today. The ultimate reward is a landscape legacy for generations to come.

 

Get Involved!

For more information about this project, to learn what volunteer opportunities are available, or to schedule a presentation for your group, contact Phyllis Ashmead, Southwest Jémez Mountains Landscape Restoration Project Partnership Coordinator, pashmead@fs.fed.us

 

 

SIDEBAR:

 

The National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA)

NEPA is a key element in our restoration efforts. It answers the question, how are we going to get this done and what are the social, environmental and economic effects of doing so? Both the Forest Service and the Valles Caldera Preserve are in the NEPA process to treat the bulk of their project areas. The Valles Caldera Preserve’s Environmental Impact Statement can be found online at www.vallescaldera.gov/stewardship

Currently, the Santa Fe National Forest’s interdisciplinary team is analyzing the proposed action and the alternatives for their effects. A draft environmental impact statement is expected in September, 2013 for public review and comments. The final Record of Decision is expected in January, 2014, and implementation is expected to begin in spring 2014. Information can be found online at http://www.fs.usda.gov/detail/santafe/home/?cid=FSBDEV7_021009

 

Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program

Insects, disease outbreaks and uncharacteristic large wildfires threaten the beauty, function and life in our forests and the people who depend upon and enjoy them. Wildlife suppression alone costs taxpayers billions of dollars each year. Because of these threats, Congress passed the Forest Landscape Restoration Act in 2009, proactively guiding restoration activities on competitively selected National Forest System lands.

The Act established the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (CFLRP), which solicited collaboratively developed proposals for landscape-scale ecological restoration projects that are socially and economically viable. Restoration and monitoring are key components of the selected projects. These large-scale projects require treatments for at least a 10-year period across landscapes that are at least 50,000 acres in size and may include federal, state, tribal or private land.

Even before Congress was establishing the CFLRP, interest and focus on the southwest Jémez Mountains was growing. Following the Cerro Grande Fire in 2000, agency fire staff, community and conservation groups, and local and tribal governments teamed up to consider how to reduce the risk of high-severity fires in northern NM. Since then, there has been ongoing collaboration among these groups and a focus on the need to restore this landscape. As a result, the Southwest Jémez Mountains Collaborative Landscape Restoration Project was one of 10, out of 31 proposals that was awarded funding in 2010. The project will receive approximately $35 million in appropriated funds over ten years. Collaboration was the proposal’s strongest asset and will continue to be essential in implementation.

In 2010, WildEarth Guardians and the Forest Guild became partners with The Nature Conservancy and NM Forest Watershed Restoration Institute, forming a collaborative group for this effort. See below for a complete list of partners.

 

 

SWJM Project Collaboration Participants

 

Government Agencies and Tribes

 

  • Los Alamos County, Fire Department
  • NM Dept. of Game and Fish
  • NM ENMRD-State Forestry
  • NM Environment Department Surface Water
  • NM State University, USGS Wildlife Co-op Unit
  • NM State University, USDA ARS Jornada Experimental Range
  • NM Tech
  • Northern NM College, Forestry Department
  • Northern Arizona University
  • Pueblo of Jémez
  • Pueblo of Santa Clara
  • Sandoval County, Fire Dept.
  • Smithsonian Institute
  • US DOE Los Alamos National Laboratory
  • University of Arizona
  • University of NM
  • USGS Jémez Mountains Ecological Field Station
  • USDA Forest Service
  • USDA-FS Rocky Mountain Research Station
  • USDA Natural Resource Conservation Service
  • USDA Systematic Entomology Lab
  • USDI BIA, Northern & Southern Pueblos Agencies
  • USDI Fish & Wildlife Service, Ecol. Svc. Field Office
  • USDI NPS Bandelier National Monument
  • US Fish and Wildlife Service

 

Non-Government Agencies

 

  • Cuba Regional Economic Development Organization
  • Desert Research Institute
  • Forest Guild
  • Firewise Community Associations
  • Four Corners Institute
  • Hawks Aloft
  • La Cueva Volunteer Fire Department
  • Las Comunidades
  • Los Amigos de Valles Caldera
  • Mid-Region Council of Governments
  • National Wildlife Federation
  • NM Forest &Watershed Restoration Institute
  • NM Forest Industry Association
  • NM Trout
  • Old Broads for Wilderness
  • Restoration Solutions
  • Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation
  • Smithsonian Institute
  • The Nature Conservancy, NM
  • Thompson Ridge & Sierra de los Piños POAs
  • Trout Unlimited, Truchas Chapter
  • USA Firewise, Gr. E. Jémez WUI Working Group
  • Valdez Logging
  • Valles Caldera Trust
  • Village of Jémez Springs
  • WildEarth Guardians