ALBUQUERQUE – Restoring forests, using fire as a management tool and getting more buy-in from private landowners are among the strategies outlined in New Mexico’s latest forest action plan.
The state Forestry Division released the plan Monday. The federal government requires each state to update the plans every decade.
The latest version identifies areas that are priorities based on wildfire risks and their importance as sources for water. It also includes steps for how New Mexico can work with the federal government and other groups as part of a shared stewardship initiative.
“This collaboration is essential in moving forward with a solid foundation to address both human-caused and natural threats to our lands in a continually changing climate,” New Mexico Forester Laura McCarthy said in a statement.
McCarthy said the 10 strategies outlined in the plan will guide decision-making when it comes to developing plans for conservation or restoration of areas where hazards pose the greatest threat to the state’s natural resources. She said public benefits also are part of the equation as the projects could provide jobs and support rural economies.
The threat of catastrophic wildfire has only grown in recent years as New Mexico has been stuck in a long-term drought. Winter snowpack and summer monsoons have been disappointing, resulting in tinder-dry watersheds in the higher elevations and shrinking reservoirs downstream.
The latest drought map shows much of the U.S. Southwest mired in drought, with extreme and exceptional conditions covering about 80% of New Mexico. The state’s largest reservoir is at only 11% capacity, and weather forecasters have been issuing warnings about blowing dust and high fire danger.
In southern New Mexico, managers on the Gila National Forest this week pointed to strong spring winds as one reason they were increasing the fire danger level. They warned that all fine dead fuels could ignite readily and unattended brush and campfires are likely to escape and spread rapidly.
“Fires may become serious and their control difficult unless they are attacked successfully while small,” the forest said in a statement, urging people to be vigilant.
The state Forestry Division took into consideration more than 200 layers of data from dozens of sources in creating an assessment of what areas and resources around the state are most vulnerable. Those resources range from communities that border forests to recreation, cultural uses, biodiversity, traditional uses such as grazing and wood gathering, and water supplies.
According to the plan, surface water is the source of slightly more than 50% of water withdrawals in New Mexico, including that used for the state’s multibillion-dollar agriculture industry. About 30% of the water diverted by public water systems comes from surface sources.
Today’s fuel conditions and fire behavior are unprecedented, the document said. In a pattern that started in the late 1990s, wildfires have grown larger, burn hotter, and leave vast areas bare and vulnerable to debris flows. When exposed soil is washed away by rainstorms, restoration can be difficult, if not impossible.
State officials pointed to the 2011 Las Conchas Fire, which burned more than 150,000 acres in the Jemez Mountains, destroyed several dozen homes and more than 100 other structures, and devastated wildlife habitat and critical watersheds. They said downstream communities are still dealing with the lingering impacts of that catastrophic wildfire.
In crafting the plan, experts modeled things such as burn probability, flash flooding, debris flow and erosion hazards.
They also looked at how susceptible forests are to diseases and insects. They said higher forest densities coupled with climate change lead to increased tree stress and mortality over larger areas. That mortality increases when drought conditions coincide with pest outbreaks.
Tree mortality by 2027 was modeled, showing that pest-driven mortality is expected to occur to some degree in all forests and woodlands in the state while the greatest losses of trees overall are expected in the Sacramento, Sandia and Manzano mountains and the Sangre De Cristo range.