Counties Rally Around Forest Health Petition

Commissioners cite catastrophic fire, watershed depletion, unemployment and loss of culture as some of the many reasons for signing

November 18, 2002

By Sarah James

Questions or comments: 505-243-4682 or at cnic9@yahoo.com  (Cliff Nichols)

Santa Fe, NM - With very little press coverage, with no hoopla, and at last with no support from the governor who has promised to act for nearly two years, a Petition to the US Secretary of Agriculture still received overwhelming support from elected officials statewide.

What began almost two years ago with the passage of a popular and important forest health bill in New Mexico has now culminated with a request for action from the federal government. The elected officials who have signed it-state legislators and county commissioners from around the state-joined many other individuals and organizations in demanding that the federal government act to alleviate the extreme fire conditions in New Mexico's national forests.

The duty of any government is to protect the lives and property of its citizens. The Petition asserts that the federal government has not only failed in this duty in the national forests, but has also failed to assume responsibility for the devastation caused by catastrophic fires. If federal policies don't change, the people of New Mexico say, they would like the US Forest Service to be held liable for the foreseeable consequences of future catastrophic fires.

In a nutshell, the Petition calls on Ann Veneman to "either take action or take responsibility" for forest health. That rallying cry rang very true with county commissioners in forested areas of the state. Mora County was one of the first to respond.

"We think this would be good because we have had very many forest fires and because of the proximity [of the fires] to human inhabited areas," says Mora County Commissioner Emma Duran-Buck. She adds that drought conditions increase the need for fire prevention measures. The commissioner hopes that the Petition will jump-start thinning programs in her county as a way to ease the unemployment burden there.

Her point is one that has been made frequently during the last few fire seasons. Much of New Mexico's rural economy has been severely hurt by the loss of the logging industry.

"It puts people to work when we clean up the forest, and there's not a county in New Mexico that doesn't need jobs," agrees Chavez County Commissioner Alice Eppers.

Commissioner Moises Morales of Rio Arriba County says the environmental lawsuits and mismanagement of forested lands that have ruined the logging industry have also had a negative impact on the Hispanic culture of the state.

"My grandparents were Native Americans [who] lived off the land," Morales says. "We're environmentalists, just not extremists. I think it's time they let someone take care of the forests, manage them right. We can do a better job. We make sure our land is healthy."

The Petition that has these counties talking was set into motion by Senate Bill 1. This bill, which was passed and signed into law during the 2001 state legislature, declared a state of emergency in the national forests in New Mexico. Those forests were dangerously overgrown from years of forest service mismanagement and environmental legal wrangling, leading to fires too big and too hot to control.

According to the bill, years of petitioning the forest service for help ended in repeated failure. After the devastating fire season of 2000 in which the city of Los Alamos nearly perished, Senate Bill 1 was a final desperate action to galvanize the government of New Mexico into action.

That action was never taken, so all New Mexicans were forced to watch in horror as nearly 400,000 additional acres burned across the state in the two fire seasons since the bill was passed.

"Part of the Cerro Grande fire in Los Alamos was out of control as a result of overgrowth," says Santa Fe County Commission Chairman Paul Duran. "To protect communities and make sure forests actually thrive didn't become an issue until we had thousands of acres burn all around us."

In the Lincoln National Forest, the fire issue has become the central topic of political debate. Otero County Commissioner Tim McGinn says the need for thinning in the Lincoln is desperate.

"I signed the Petition as an urgent warning that the condition of the forest continues to be a serious potential for catastrophe, for our county and many others in the state," McGinn says. Most of the elected official in Otero County signed the Petition.

But not only forested counties have joined forces on the Petition. Luna County in the southwest corner of the state approved and signed it unanimously to support their neighbors in the Gila National Forest.

"I encouraged the commission to cooperate with other counties that do have forested land in view of the devastation that has occurred as a result of lack of management," says Luna County Commissioner Fannie Tillman-Smyer.

"We're just helping our fellow New Mexicans," says Chavez's Commissioner Eppers, stating that other counties asked Chavez County to support them by signing the Petition. "It's awful to wait this long to do something that is right," she says.

The Petition to United States Secretary of Agriculture Ann Veneman takes Senate Bill 1 to its logical and long-awaited conclusion. Using existing state and federal law, it calls on the Secretary to give limited jurisdiction over national forest lands to the state for emergency clean up efforts in dangerously overgrown areas.

This kind of limited involvement by the state seems to be in line with the President's campaign desire to give states more power and decision-making discretion. It is also consistent with the

Counties Rally

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President's Healthy Forests Initiative, based on the National Fire Plan, which claims to be a partnership between the US Forest Service, the Department of the Interior, and State Forestry Departments. So far, the plan only actively addresses buffer zones around communities and rehabilitation of land that has already burned.

That leaves unaddressed the vast majority of 190 million acres of national forests, which the Secretary of the Interior Gale Norton identified in August as being in critical danger of catastrophic forests fires.

In one national forest alone, officials estimate that there are four billion excess trees. That excess has begun to have measurable ramifications on the watershed as well.

"If the Forest Service doesn't step up and address the [fire and water] issues immediately, we're going to devastate the rural west," says Caren Cowan, Executive Director of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association. "The lack of management of national forests west-wide has impacted natural resource use and water availability."

The water issue has galvanized many counties in the state.

Much discussion has been given to the salt cedars growing along the Pecos, which can each consume up to 400 gallons of water a day. But little has been said about the water consumption of the billions of excess conifers growing in the national forests, many of which consume as much as 200 gallons daily.

Otero's Commissioner McGinn says that many of the streams and creeks that used to run full of water are now dry.

"You know when there's 700 trees on an acre, that's not healthy," McGinn says. "The number of trees per acre is probably five to ten times what it should be. You don't necessarily have to take a water depth test to know the forest is not a healthy watershed for our aquifer."

San Juan County is facing a water shortage as well, but they say changes in New Mexico won't affect their watersheds. These changes would have to take place in Colorado and other more northerly states. Commission Chairman Mark Duncan says they are solving their water problems through cooperation between cities and new engineering projects on the Animas River. He says that instead of the water issue, his commission supported the Petition for its agricultural ramifications.

"I don't think we have one acre of national forest in our county" he says, but adds that a resolution by agricultural supporters of the petition was brought to the commission for their unanimous approval. "We support that," he says.

Signatures have come, literally, from all corners of the state, representing lawmakers from more than half of all counties. Santa Fe's Commissioner Duran sums it up well: "Public awareness is high right now.we feel strongly that we need to be able to go into the forests and do thinning."

The Petition, hoping to achieve this very objective, was sent to Secretary of Agriculture Veneman on November 1st.