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Managing the Forest for the Watershed (and the Trees)

― The Forest and Watershed Restoration Act (HB 266a)

Sounding more like a football cheer than new legislation, the state forestry folks refer to it as “FAWRA”– this year’s new Forest And Watershed Restoration Act (HB 266a) – created to provide funding to the state forestry division of the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department (EMNRD) for projects out on the landscape to help secure our state’s water future through forest restoration work.

FAWRA is in direct response to the recognition that forest management and restoration are critical to the state’s water supply. Evidently, there’s A LOT of forest that needs attention in New Mexico.

Forests evolved with the help of natural fire to keep their density in check. Due to various land management practices for more than a century and years of fire suppression, forest fires are now outside the natural fire range, and they’re creating extreme consequences. An August thunderstorm this year, for example, washed away eight inches of soil (depth) in the burn areas, and filled reservoirs and ditches. One research study estimates that it takes 10,000 years to create one inch of soil, so in one year, a state forester explained, we lost 80,000 years of soil development. Fires are burning hotter, too, with more devastating consequences on the land.

Photo above: Rancho del Chaparral, protected by a conservation easement held by NMLC, is situated within the forested slopes of the Jemez Mountains in the Rio de Las Vacas watershed, a tributary of the Jemez River.

New Mexico’s state forestry division has big goals – for starters, to restore tree density closer to what they estimate was that of natural forests. They measure forest density by tree basal area per acre, which is calculated by measuring the area of a circle – pi x (radius)2 – (circle being the cross section of a tree trunk at breast height) x number of trees.

A healthy forest should have about 40-60 square feet of trees per acre – some of our forests have 1,000 square feet per acre – 20 times healthy density. Prescribed controlled burns serve as a primary tool for forest thinning, essential for healthy watersheds.

The forestry division is currently developing its second Forest Action Plan (first one was done in 2010), an ambitious undertaking that consists of 88 different GPS layers based on various priority considerations – e.g., water, community safety, wildlife habitat, risk of wild fire, etc. Experts are assessing each priority area, then analyzing the tradeoffs – where conflicts of priorities might exist – such as fire risk vs. wildlife habitat. The Nature Conservancy is helping with the analysis. The state will then develop a strategy, based on the assessments, including priority area maps. Completion of the final plan is expected by June 2020.

Of the state’s 24.6 million acres of forested land, 9% (or 2.2 million acres)  is state forest-managed land. Yet a full 43% (10.6 million acres) is privately owned. New Mexico’s diverse array of private landowners consists of individuals and families, corporations, tribes, and non-governmental organizations such as private associations or conservation groups.

One challenge of FAWRA: because of New Mexico’s anti-donation clause, anything the state funds on private land is intensely scrutinized and must demonstrate unequivocally that it provides significant public benefit. For this reason, most of the FAWRA funding will go to projects on public land.

However, the new administration has encouraged the State Forestry Division to address restoration at a landscape scale. If a priority project included the restoration of, say, 35% of a forest area and 15% of that was on private land, it could be justified that work on that private land was of demonstrable public benefit.

High tree density is visible in the Carson National Forest south of Taos, NM.

In addition to state forest lands, there are approximately 8 million acres of national forest in New Mexico, as well, which don’t qualify for FAWRA funding. However, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) often contracts with New Mexico’s Forestry Division to work on national forests throughout the state and, on November 14, 2019, New Mexico’s governor and the chief of the USFS will sign the Shared Stewardship Agreement. Several states have signed this agreement already, but New Mexico has moved slowly to make sure all the interests in the state, such as the land grants, are considered. This agreement should create more opportunity for overlapping projects between the state and USFS in New Mexico’s forests. #




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