April 2016

Forest Health and Landscape Resiliency in the San Juan-Chama Watershed




Monique DiGiorgio



What do southern Colorado and northern New Mexico have in common? In addition to sharing a border, the southern San Juan Mountains contain forested watersheds of high value to both states. The area supports traditional agricultural operations, substantial wildlife populations, tourism-based economies and public recreation, including hunting and outfitting opportunities that attract international visitors.



In the center of the region is the Bureau of Reclamation’s San Juan-Chama Diversion, which moves 110,000 acre-feet of water annually from the San Juan Basin to the central Río Grande Valley, providing approximately 50 percent of Santa Fe County’s and 90 percent of Bernalillo County’s water supply. Three watersheds—the Navajo, Little Navajo and Blanco—are tapped for water that is transferred under the continental divide to the Chama River and then to the Río Grande. The waters of the San Juan-Chama Diversion support nearly a million people, as well as native fish and migratory birds. Like much of the western United States, wildfire risk for these watersheds is high. Based on similar regions that have experienced catastrophic fire, large-scale erosion, landslides and post-fire debris such as dead trees will challenge the operation of this diversion. Not only does this threat affect the consistent delivery of clean water to New Mexico communities; floods and debris-flow will also affect communities like Chromo and Edith in Colorado.



To proactively address these issues, the Chama Peak Land Alliance launched the San Juan-Chama Watershed Partnership (www.sanjuanchama.org) in 2014. This community-based partnership is working to increase the resiliency and ecosystem health of the watershed. Through thoughtful restoration and management, the partnership intends to improve the health of forests, increase water yield, improve water quality and wildlife habitat and support a sustainable biomass industry that creates jobs and boosts the economy.



As part of the partnership, the Chama Peak Land Alliance and The Nature Conservancy’s New Mexico office have teamed up under the auspices of the Río Grande Water Fund to, over the next three years, conduct prescribed fire and thinning on 800 acres to improve forest health and restore wildlife habitat. To accomplish this, they plan to 1) create fire plans for private lands and coordinate fire-management activities across jurisdictional boundaries to include local, state and federal agencies including the U.S. Forest Service, as well as tribal and other jurisdictions responsible for fire management in the project area; 2) share lessons learned from cross-boundary management in this landscape with others restoring forests in the Río Grande Water Fund area and with other members of the national Fire Learning Network; and 3) increase the ability of local ranches, community members and government partners to conduct prescribed burns through trainings and workshops in the region.



Chama Peak Land Alliance


The Chama Peak Land Alliance (CPLA), launched in 2010, is a diverse group of conservation-minded landowners committed to practicing responsible land, water and wildlife stewardship in southern Colorado and northern New Mexico for the benefit of the region’s multicultural heritage and future generations. CPLA members share ideas and help educate one another in areas of land management, promote conservation of open space and help deter landscape fragmentation, and coordinate landscape-scale management efforts such as forestry, prescribed fire and wildlife stewardship.



CPLA members represent a land area that ranges from 7,000 feet to over 12,000 feet in elevation, including portions of the Continental Divide that cover approximately 250,000 acres. CPLA’s conservation efforts are further enhanced by the official participation of the Jicarilla Apache Nation.



CPLA’s Fire Ecology and Resiliency project is an on-the-ground example of the Alliance’s goals. The CPLA and the Nature Conservancy-New Mexico hope to build on the project with future investments and additional resiliency work, guided by the development of the Navajo-Blanco Resiliency Plan, which is building additional partnerships for future landscape-scale treatments. This work is also part of the effort in the Río Chama along with Río Grande Restoration and the other partners.




Monique DiGiorgio is executive director of the Chama Peak Land Alliance.








Land Stewardship


While land ownership, management and use are very diverse in the region, landowners share a common desire to keep this spectacular landscape healthy through stewardship efforts. Given adequate support, landowners are in a unique position to respond quickly, implementing management practices that proactively address threats such as drought, catastrophic wildfire, historic overuse of the land and degradation of bird and wildlife habitat.



A full-time coordinator for CPLA’s Stewardship Program works side by side with private landowners to further their management and conservation goals:



  • Coordination of landscape-scale, multiproperty conservation projects including river and wetland restoration and forest health

  • Connecting landowners to economic and technical resources

  • Sharing ecologically and economically sound land-management practices through peer networking, landowner-expert problem solving, and local land-management workshops

  • Presenting a unified response to issues such as oil and gas and other development that threaten the rural landscape



Some of the Alliance’s major accomplishments:


  • Restoration along 6.75 miles of the Navajo River with nine landowners and two miles of the Río Chama

  • Planting of 450 native willows, bareroot seedlings, alders and cottonwoods along the Navajo River and its tributaries to increase riparian health, water quality and wildlife habitat

  • Engaging 30 landowners in conservation, restoration and agricultural projects affecting hundreds of thousands of acres in key private lands

  • Reaching out to more than 2,000 landowners throughout the region, inviting them to participate in CPLA’s stewardship efforts

  • Over 30 nonprofit, state and federal partners are working with CPLA on private lands stewardship

  • $530,000 in private dollars raised for habitat restoration

  • $125,000 of in-kind professional and volunteer match raised supporting planning and implementation of on-the-ground projects

  • $150,000 raised in staff capacity and support of stewardship efforts

  • 10 workshops held across the Colorado/New Mexico landscape, connecting private landowners with technical and financial resources through experts and partners







Prescribed Burning on Private Lands


Intentionally putting fire on the ground as a land-management practice is, at best, a complex and responsibility-laden endeavor. One only has to look at federal government nomenclature to get the first wisp of this complexity. Early on, as federal land managers were beginning to use fire, they called the burns “controlled fires” but, because control was an oxymoron, given the chaos of fire behavior, the term “prescribed fire” quickly won favor. When control was lost on some prescribed fires that became very large wildfires in the early 2000s, the federal name shifted to “fire-use.” Still, most resource managers heard their seventh-grade English teachers scold them each time they said “the fire-use fire.” Today, the feds refer to their intentional fire as a “managed fire,” and they are less concerned whether they started the fire or it ignited naturally; they are managing the fire for resource benefit.



Most private landowners are less concerned with being politically correct, and so the term “prescribed fire” is still preferred with private land managers. What landowners are extremely concerned with is the liability that comes with purposefully igniting a fire with the intention of providing better forest management. In New Mexico, the liability for open burning lies with the landowner, and it is the responsibility of the landowner to ensure that such activities are conducted in a safe and responsible manner. Should a prescribed fire escape control and become a wildfire, then the state has a responsibility to fully suppress the fire. The landowner can be liable for all associated costs and penalties.



The landowner is also responsible for acquiring all applicable permits, including smoke permits from the New Mexico Environment Department and burn permits issued by each respective county where the burn is taking place. For less complex fires, such as burning isolated piles with snow on the ground, many ranchers conduct these activities on their own. For more complex broadcast burning, most private land managers will hire consultants to write burn plans and implement the burns with qualified staff.



Although many landowners choose not to use fire on their lands, those who do generally find fire is more economical for slash disposal and keeping forest stands healthy than using mechanical operations. In addition, burning recycles nutrients in the forest and helps put forest ecosystems into more natural conditions.

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