It's hard to imagine a more colossal cat-herding exercise than the one taken on by the nonprofit Río Grande Water Fund.

The Nature Conservancy organized RGWF five years ago, largely in response to the devastating Las Conchas fire of 2011. Today, the fund coordinates the efforts of 85 signatory organizations that all have a common interest - protecting the Río Grande watershed. A chunk of that watershed includes rivers in Taos County such as the Río Fernando.

"We convened a group of public and private partners to deal with fire risk in the upper waters of the Río Grande," said Collin Haffey, conservation manager for The Nature Conservancy in Santa Fe.

Catastrophic fires are intimately connected with watersheds, the areas that drain into rivers. Such fires are often followed by flooding that impairs downstream water quality. In the case of Las Conchas, it actually shut down the surface water supply to Albuquerque and Santa Fe for several weeks.

"Albuquerque residents may live many miles from the forests of Northern New Mexico," said Haffey, "but once they make that connection between forest fires and their watersheds, they really get it."

The fund receives support from five county governments - Taos, Santa Fe, Los Alamos, Sandoval and Bernalillo.

Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority recently became the first utility to underwrite the fund's efforts, putting up a $1 million investment.

"We want to ensure clean, secure drinking water for everyone," said Katherine Yuhas, the utility's water resources manager, in a statement. "The surface water we use for drinking travels more than 200 miles from its source to our customers. Improving forest health in the watersheds along that route is a key part of our water plan."

What's behind catastrophic 'tree-killing' fires

Las Conchas started on one of the hottest, driest days of 2011. It burned an unprecedented 40,000 acres in its first 24 hours and ultimately ravaged 153,000 acres, killing mature trees across much of the burn.

"Tree-killing fires are historical anomalies," Haffey noted, "even if you go back 500 to 1,000 years." As recently as 200 years ago, the ponderosa pine and other dry conifer forests of New Mexico were markedly less dense. The trees had a chance to grow much larger and typically had thicker bark and higher branches.

"These are adaptations that help mature trees withstand fairly frequent, low-severity surface fires," Haffey noted. "You'd see these types of fires occurring regularly a century ago."

At lower elevations, such fires came at two- to seven-year intervals, while higher up in the Sangre de Cristos, they'd typically occur every 15 to 25 years. These created an open forest in which surface fires were able to burn freely, killing the grass and smaller trees but not harming the mature ones.

About the turn of the 20th century, human-caused phenomena began to suppress these surface fires, first by overgrazing and then through active fire prevention efforts on the part of federal agencies.

"First it was sheep and cows that were the problem," said Haffey, "then it was Smokey Bear." Without surface fires to kill the little trees, tree density soared from 40-100 per acre to 400-2,000 per acre, setting the stage for devastating fires like Las Conchas.

One of RGWF's major efforts has been to thin out those smaller trees that would otherwise have been killed by surface fires. They recently announced that they're now treating over 30,000 acres of forest annually in Northern New Mexico through controlled burns and thinning and have treated a cumulative 140,000 acres. Their goal is to open up the forest canopy, allow more light into the forest floor and restore the grass and other vegetation.

"The water fund's goal at the highest level is to protect water sources for a million people in New Mexico," said Haffey. "Down at the project level, that often means reintroducing healthy surface fires back into these dry conifer forests."

Creating restoration jobs

Locally, restoration work is creating jobs across Taos County, both in forest and stream work, thanks largely to grants from the Río Grande Water Fund, the U.S. Forest Service and other sources.

"We have a strong partnership with RGWF," said Ben Thomas, executive director of the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps, an AmeriCorps affiliate that trains young people in basic forestry skills and creates career paths in natural resources management. All told, RMYC has received over $500,000 in funding from the water fund, although not all of it went toward work in Taos County.

RMYC worked on two forest-thinning projects within the Taos city limits funded by RGWF during the latter half of 2019. They also thinned forest near the foot of Kachina Peak at Taos Ski Valley. RMYC has used RGWF money to thin and treat forests in the foothills above El Salto, in partnership with the El Salto del Agua Association.

RMYC works with water fund partners such as the Forest Service to maintain trails, help restore wetland areas, install or mend fencing to protect waterways and eradicate invasive species that impact wetlands. "We even supported them in delivery of the Capitol Christmas Tree to D.C. this year," said Thomas.

The water fund has helped foster a "landscape approach" to watershed restoration, he added. "All too often, our land management agencies - federal, state, local and tribal - as well as our investors and funders, users and even the general public are operating in their own silos when it comes to restoration strategy and action."

Cerro Negro Forest Council

"This is a whole new concept of forest restoration," said J.R. Logan, secretary/treasurer of the Cerro Negro Forest Council and former Taos News reporter. Based in San Cristóbal, the organization has taken forest stewardship back to ground level.

"Carson National Forest personnel are spread very thin," said Logan, "so they've in effect handed over management of 300 acres of forest between San Cristóbal and Valdez to Cerro Negro." The group received a Forest Service grant of $360,000 that allows them to recruit leñeros, or caretakers. The leñeros each get a stipend of $300 to cover expenses and are assigned their own acre to manage.

Cerro Negro and Las Trampas Forest Council, which operates out of Peñasco, are organized like the centuries-old acequias, each with its mayordomo who supervises the leñeros. The Forest Service inspects their work periodically to ensure it meets federal standards, but for the most part, it's the mayordomos who take responsibility for getting it done right.

Cerro Negro currently has 55 leñeros, each of whom gets to reap the rewards of thinning and removing the smaller trees. Many of them have turned stewardship into a lucrative firewood business.

"The forest councils are basically just another way to make a small dent in the huge project of forest restoration," said Logan. "But the fact that these forests are in their own backyard puts things on a wholly different footing for these guys. They feel they have a personal stake in this work. "

Amigos Bravos

Amigos Bravos, a small but highly accomplished nonprofit group of water-quality experts that operates out of Taos, has led the collaborative effort to restore the Río Fernando. They've focused on the río's headwaters near the top of Taos Canyon, which includes the La Jara wetlands - one of 10 critical "wetland jewels" they've identified in Carson National Forest.

"RGWF has been a great partner in helping to restore the headwaters of the Río Fernando," said Rachel Conn, director of projects at Amigos Bravos. "The wetlands create a reservoir that soaks up the snowmelt and slowly releases it, creating more consistent, colder flow."

Cold flow, she stressed, is critical for aquatic life. "Too-warm water is one of our biggest water quality problems in New Mexico," Conn said. "Temperature is a form of pollution. When water gets too hot, it can't hold much oxygen, so the fish die."

While Amigos hasn't created numerous jobs, the group has received major grants from the water fund that it has used to complete critical wetlands restoration projects in the La Jara. They used RGWF grants of $17,000 and $66,000 respectively to conduct an assessment and then design a restoration treatment, retaining Watershed Artisans of Santa Fe to do the work.

"Our stream systems have been seriously degraded by land-management practices that created deep, incised channels that drain the water away from the wetlands," Conn added. "We're trying to slow the water down, build the channel back up and re-wet the floodplain and the wet meadow areas."

Using a third RGWF grant of $120,000, Amigos Bravos hired Taos-based Robert Valencia of All-Around Fence to build a mile of low-maintenance welded metal fence to control the grazing in La Jara. According to Conn, the group worked with the grazing permitee, Forest Service and other stakeholders to ensure that the solution would work for all interested parties.

Tracking each funding dollar

The water fund has worked with an economics team at the U.S. Geological Survey to get a handle on where allocated funds actually end up.

"USGS has models they've developed with the Bureau of Labor and Statistics," said Haffey. "Each dollar we allocate gets assigned to a category of work, and that category has a modeled output in terms of how many jobs it supports, what's the local economic impact of that dollar and how many times does that dollar bounce around in the local economy."

While he couldn't provide exact numbers for Taos County, Haffey said restoration work supports "quite a few" local jobs here. Most of them are woods work - manual labor jobs in the forest, either thinning or burning smaller trees or restoring wetlands.

On the private enterprise side, Haffey said the Water Fund works with local contractors as much as possible, including environmental planners that design the restoration treatments. Santa Fe-based Watershed Artisans, for example, has done a good deal of the assessment and restoration design work in Carson National Forest.

"We also try to work on the other side of the economy to figure out what to do with all this wood that comes out of the forest-thinning projects," said Haffey. "People have been trying to crack that nut for a long time - how do you even come close to a break-even point with that small-diameter timber?"

He mentioned local small businesses that process latillas and vigas or make wood pellets for home heating, all of which require a minimal amount of processing. "There are also co-generating facilities that create electricity from burning," he added. "A number of firms in Northern New Mexico are experimenting with that kind of operation."

Poised for growth

"The restoration economy in New Mexico is really well poised for growth over the next 10 to 20 years," said Haffey. "It starts with programs like Rocky Mountain Youth Corps, getting our youth out in the woods and trained with those vocational skills."

"But I think our challenge right now is finding that middle piece," Haffey continued. "Once these young people have gone through a youth corps program, how do we create local, well-paid jobs for them? We need to think collectively at a big-picture level on how we create sustainable economies that support this kind of work over the long term."

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