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Restoring Cultural Landscapes and Reducing Community Fire Risk in New Mexico
The Southwest Jemez Mountains Collaborative Landscape Restoration Project consists of 210,000 acres within the Jemez River watershed in north-central New Mexico. Project activities reduce fire risk while providing local jobs in an area that has experienced devastating fires. The project will improve wildlife habitat and watershed conditions and restore landscapes that contain over 4,500 heritage sites of the Jemez Pueblo ancestral lands.
Summary of Action and Outcome
Reduction of hazardous fuels in the forests closest to communities involved thinning and burning approaches. Local companies and authorities were highly involved to promote job creation, protect local culture, and improve local perception of Forest Service efforts.
Congress authorized appropriation of up to $40M annually for Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (CFLRP) project implementation and monitoring to cover up to 50 percent of these costs, with no more than $4M going to any one project. The Forest Service funding shown here is the lifelong request for CFLRP funding. Forest Service and partner match funds, as well as goods for services through stewardship contracts, are leveraged to cover the remaining costs of the projects. Total annual expenditures are given in project annual reports.
All CFLRP projects were selected by a Federal Advisory Committee. Details on project proposals can be found here.
For up-to-date project information, see the annual reports on the “Results” page of the USFS CFLRP website.
Monitoring observations fall under three categories:
- The first is forest biomass (fuel) reduction through thinning operations and prescribed fire. Prescriptions have been developed to remove most white fir and leave different age classes of aspen, Douglas fir, and ponderosa pine, as well as large logs that provide habitat for the endangered Jemez Mountains salamander. Monitoring for responses of vegetation, large mammals, birds, and pest/beneficial insects to thinning and burning operations is underway, with control and treatment areas established and sampled before and after treatments. Results of vegetation monitoring indicate steady increases in grasses and herbaceous wildflower species. Large mammals (elk, deer, bear, and cougar) are using restored areas; elk in particular are using burned forested sites that have new herbaceous vegetation. Bird communities appear to show little response to thinning thus far, although large areas were in managed burns in 2015 and the 2016 samples may show more pronounced changes. Insect assemblages in post-burned forests are showing changes in species, moving from those that inhabit forest-floor litter to meadow-grassland species (concomitant with increasing herbaceous vegetation after fire).
- The second ecological monitoring effort has been in riparian areas that were restored with woody shrubs and trees by our collaborators with WildEarth Guardians. Survival of plants was initially low during the drought of 2011, but subsequent replanting efforts in 2012–2015 have high survivorship.
- The third major monitoring effort dealt with the Las Conchas wildfire (Summer 2011), which burned ~30,000 acres of the project area, and the Thompson Ridge wildfire in 2013 that burned ~25,000 acres on the Valles Caldera National Preserve. Monitoring sites were established in burned and unburned grasslands, forests, and streams, including many from before the fire. Monitoring results indicate that grassland vegetation recovered in <8 weeks for total cover, litter, and bare ground, but that individual species exhibited significant increases/decreases in cover and height. Grassland pest insects (grasshoppers) were significantly reduced post-fire, but have recovered through 2015; some other species of pest/beneficial grassland insects did not decline in burned sites. Grassland birds generally were less abundant, with fewer species in burned grasslands one year after the fire; some species (crows, sparrows) increased after the fire. Prairie dog populations in grasslands did not decline following the fire. Forest understory vegetation and forest-floor litter were significantly reduced by the fire, with concomitant increases in bare ground; however, by the end of 2015, herbaceous ground cover exceeded 80 percent in ponderosa pine forests and over 95 percent in mixed-conifer stands that had suffered high-severity burns in 2011. Aspen sprouts were up to 5 m tall by September 2015 in some areas, but had been heavily browsed by elk and cattle in other areas. Forest birds remained abundant in both burned and unburned stands of ponderosa pine and mixed-conifer. Small mammals were generally unaffected by fire in the short term, as they sheltered underground during the fire; tree squirrels were killed by the fire. By 2014, meadow mice (voles) had become common as the vegetation developed into a montane meadow. Most forest invertebrates exhibited little impact from the fire, and were recovering quickly through 2015. Moths were the exception, with significantly reduced species numbers and abundances. Flash floods in streams caused reductions of trout by 95 percent; however, native non-game fish survived in good populations. Ammonia concentrations likely caused the fish kills (streamwater ammonia was 2–3 times above the concentration needed for killing trout).
The project partnered with Jemez Pueblo and T.C. Company through a Collaborative Forest Restoration Program (CFRP) grant to remove and utilize small-diameter trees from 784 acres thinned in 2011. The CFRP grant supported the creation of Walatowa Timber Industries, LLC (WTI), a joint venture between T.C. Company and Jemez Pueblo Development Corporation. The goals of WTI are to create economic development in the Pueblo of Jemez and the surrounding community while restoring the landscapes that contain Jemez Pueblo ancestral lands. Establishing this viable point of utilization is critical to achieving the goals of the CFLRP project and the 10-year strategy within the Southwest Jemez Mountains. The Valles Caldera National Preserve (VCNP) and U.S. Forest Service have contracted thinning with WTI to provide local jobs and wood to the local community, including the Jemez Pueblo.
There have been job trainings, youth engagement, community workshops, and educational fire panels. Specifically, the Santa Fe National Forest has built an internal timber-marking crew that has continued to train Forest Service seasonal employees. There have also been Forest Service teams that have had time on the ground as timber markers and timber cruisers.
Additionally, numerous universities, both from within New Mexico and out of state, have completed and surpassed the amount of visits that were anticipated. The previous Partnership Coordinator, Phyllis Ashmead, welcomed numerous student groups to venture to the project areas to make observations and to gain knowledge of how the CFLRP project will benefit their generation with long-term staged benefits to the forest and environments for generations to come.
Community workshops have been undertaken as part of the NEPA process for several years. In terms of educational fire panels, these have been part-and-parcel of these community workshops. Prescribed fire and the benefits and impacts on the landscape and ecosystem have been common topics of workshops and community dialogue as this is one of the highest areas of concern, and therefore education, for citizens due to the very nature and fear of fire.
When the 2014 National Defense Authorization Act transferred the Valles Caldera National Preserve (VCNP) to the National Park Service (NPS), the Preserve was no longer eligible to receive Forest Service funds as part of the National Forest System. Direction for the CFLRP states, “However, circumstances occur beyond the control of the collaborative group (e.g. wildfire, or new policy from the local government that impacts implementation schedule) that may necessitate alterations to a project.” With the transfer of the VCNP to the NPS, the Santa Fe National Forest’s Southwest Jemez Mountains CFLRP project area has been reduced from the original 209,477 acres to 123,146 acres.
The revised project proposal is still an All Lands Approach to ecosystem management and includes the Jemez Pueblo and the 12 watersheds in the original proposal. The Valles Caldera is still part of the Collaborative and will continue to provide monitoring for the project. The Santa Fe National Forest will continue to work collaboratively with the VCNP, but cannot provide funding for implementation.
The project is still a viable landscape project, with 38,500 acres of prescribed fire and 10,838 acres of mechanical thinning funded through CFLN dollars, which expire in 2019, with option years through 2024 for an additional 14,600 acres of mechanical thinning and 38,500 acres of prescribed fire. These option years include task orders and burn blocks ready to implement pending additional funding, either through allocated monies or outside partner funds.