|Wildfire Ketchum, ID. Photo Bryan Bird|
|Wildfire Ketchum, ID. Photo Bryan Bird|
WildEarth Guardians is offering the federal government $35,000 dollars to not graze domestic livestock on the Valles Caldera National Preserve. Sounds like a good deal, right? Well, if past history is an indicator, the money will be refused.
In the aftermath of the largest fire in the state’s recent history, WildEarth Guardians submitted its bid on Thursday the 15th of December for a livestock operation on the Valles Caldera National Preserve that would graze no cows. That is $35,000 to keep the Preserve free of livestock. The focus of the bid is recovery and restoration of the Preserve’s
critical habitats after the Las Conchas fire burned through the National Preserve. WildEarth Guardians has made considerable efforts over the past decade to restore the Preserve’s streamside forests and wildlife habitat and believes the fire’s effects will be beneficial but only with rest from livestock grazing.
By law, the Valles Caldera National Preserve was established to protect and preserve the area's scientific, scenic, geologic, watershed, fish, wildlife, historic, cultural, and recreational values. The Valles Caldera Trust was created to carry out the Preserve's mission and to turn a profit. The Santa-Fe based WildEarth Guardians’ bid could do just that: make money while protecting the Preserve. Guardians believes that the best return on the dollar for the federal government and taxpayers is to accept the $35,000 in return for the privilege to keep cows out of the area and return the streamside habitats to their verdant nature. The group offers its expertise in river restoration to the Preserve in addition to the money.
According to climate models, the Southwest has become, and will continue to become, a drier and warmer place. A symptom of climate change and lingering drought will be larger, more severe fires. Nearly 30,000 acres of the Valles Caldera National Preserve burned this past summer in the Las Conchas Fire. Twenty-five percent of that was in the grasslands in the Preserve's majestic valleys. Grazing domestic livestock places additional stress on already strained hydrological systems, rivers and streams. The Preserve is recovering well by all indications, but returning domestic livestock to the valleys could inhibit recovery.
Cattle have been trespassing into the VCNP for several years as documented by WildEarth Guardians and others. Trespass cows are likely gaining access from the Santa Fe National Forest which borders the Preserve on all four sides. If the VCNP were free of cows under the WildEarth Guardians' plan, the Preserve's staff would have a much easier time identifying and taking possession of trespass cows and fining the owners.
The Valles Caldera National Preserve is a gem in a long string of irreplaceable wild places that run from northern Mexico through the Rockies into Canada. With great foresight, the New Mexico congressional delegation set aside the Preserve as protected federal land. The VCNP serves as the headwaters of the Jemez River, a major tributary of the Rio Grande. This system captures and delivers water to untold numbers of municipal, agricultural, and recreational users downstream.
The valleys and forests of the Preserve are simply too valuable to put at risk with a domestic livestock grazing program.
A new GIS analysis of burn severity demonstrates less harm to forests than commonly reported.
The record setting fires of 2011 in the Southwest were widely reported as disastrous, yet new analysis by WildEarth Guardians shows the fires burned mostly as would be expected and may have long-term beneficial effects, with appropriate follow-up. Unfortunately, people lost homes and other structures in these fires.
· Wildfires in Arizona and New Mexico account for 17% of all acres burned in 2011 and that figure jumps to 37% if Texas is excluded.
· New Mexico and Arizona had 1,445 wildland fires to date, burning a total of 1,310,861 acres.
· The Wallow Fire (AZ): Over 64% of the area within the fire perimeter burned at low severity or not at all, while just 16% burned at high severity and 20% at moderate severity.
· The Horseshoe II Fire (AZ): Nearly 58% of the area within the burn perimeter burned at low severity or not at all, while just 12% burned at high severity.
· The Las Conchas Fire (NM): Nearly 20% of the fire area burned at high severity, 29% at moderate severity and 39% at low severity.
· The Pacheco Fire (NM): Almost 37% of the burn area burned at high severity and another 27% at moderate severity.
· Of the 11 western states, New Mexico has the 8th and Arizona the10th largest area of undeveloped, forested private land bordering fire-prone public lands.
· New Mexico has 600 square miles of undeveloped, forested private lands adjacent to fire-prone public lands and Arizona 400 square miles.
· New Mexico is 7th and Arizona 8th among western states in the amount of forested land where homes have already been built next to public lands.
Fire is a natural and inevitable force of nature. Though the fires of 2011 were big, they behaved mostly as we would expect. Forests are flammable and we must learn to live safely with this awesome force of nature.
Fire in the vegetation types that typically experience long return intervals, but high severity behaved normally, for example the spruce-fir forest types and wetter mixed conifer forests. In drier, forest types that typically experience short fire return intervals and low to moderate severity, the fires behaved mostly as expected with one exception: ponderosa pine forest that experienced uncharacteristic “hotter” fire. Larger, hotter fires in this dry forest type are predicted by scientists and result from forest management practices such as livestock grazing and fire suppression in combination with drought and climate change. Restoration and fuel management will be a high priority in the future for these dry forests.
With limited financial resources, national forests must be managed strategically. We know how to fire proof homes but we cannot fireproof forests in the West. Therefore, we need to spend money on a reasonable combination of controlled burning and thinning immediately around human communities.
The report concludes that the fires likely did more good than harm in controlling fuels built up over years of fire suppression, but that maintaining the lower fuel conditions with controlled burns and other management will be critical. It also concludes that development of housing in the wildland urban interface must be more tightly controlled in states like Arizona and New Mexico that still have significant development potential in fire-prone ecosystems.
Congressman Steve Pearce plans on cutting trees down on the Lincoln National Forest as a part of Otero County’s emergency tree cutting stunt scheduled on September 17, 2011. But it is a mystery what exactly the emergency is and what Otero County and Congressman Pearce are protesting. They appear to be under the impression that the Lincoln National Forest is not managing hazardous fuels and thus failing to address fire risk. But they are dangerously deluded.
A quick look at the numbers immediately puts the Congressman’s fears to rest. In the past 10 years (2000-2010) the national forest has treated forest-wide nearly 3 times more acres for hazardous fuels than in the 20-year period during 1980-1999. Congressman Pearce can now go back to his job in Washington and stop inciting hysteria amongst his constituents.
By cutting trees without a permit, the Otero County Commissioners and Congressman Pearce risked arrest and charges of violating federal law for stealing and/or damaging government property. (See for example 18 USC 371; 18 USC 641; 18 USC 1852; 7 CFR 3017.305; 7 CFR 3017.405; 36 CFR 223.48; and 36 CFR 261.6). However, it seems the Forest Service in Albuquerque will bend over backward to accommodate their political theatrics. According to the Alamogordo Daily News, Otero County Commissioners have negotiated a deal with federal attorneys in Albuquerque. An agreement that allows logging on one parcel of land in the forest was signed through the U.S. Attorney's office.
However, the commissioners and Congressman Pearce still need sawyer’s certificates, insurance and bonding to be allowed onto the logging site. Logging is inherently hazardous and requires experience, safety training, and safety equipment. If OSHA decides to make an inspection of the logging event, participants will have to be fully compliant with federal law or face citations and steep fines.
The Congressman’s theatrics demonstrate just how far outside of the mainstream he is. Fuels treatment programs on the national forests in New Mexico are ongoing, including thinning and controlled burning. The Forest Service Southwestern Region treated 202,414 acres (76,661 in NM and 125,753 in AZ) in 2010 for high hazardous fuel loads and to date 87,438 acres (35,208 in NM and 52,230 in AZ) in 2011. George Ellinger, owner of Ellinger Logging in Alamogordo, N.M., told the Alamogordo Daily News on that Pearce is misinformed. “There’s a misconception that there’s no logging going on,” he said. “Pearce came down and did a big talk with everybody, but he’s not talking to anybody who knows anything.”
Rather than rabble-rousing vigilante behavior, the Congressman should join conservationists, forest practitioners, the forest service, and the forest products industry in working on forest management programs that have been agreed upon and are scientifically defensible, for example the Collaborative Forest Restoration Program. But this takes time and energy as well as commitment to compromise, which seems outside of Congressman Pearce’s playbook.
Pearce’s desire to return the logging industry in New Mexico to its glory days is simply anachronistic and ignores free market economics. Housing starts and the lumber industry have reached historic lows in recent years, without demand logging and milling make no sense. However, controlled burning and strategic thinning does make sense and generates jobs and income. The Congressman should support the programs that facilitate these activities. He’s welcome to join us in the zone of agreement anytime.