George Dreher's property borders Carson National Forest. He's got timber and meadows. On July 17, he may have preferred being up on his land but chose instead to spend two hours at a scheduled open house in the Carson National Forest Supervisor's Office in Taos.
"I wanted to know how they were coming up with their proposals," he said later by phone.
Peter Rich and Alyssa Radcliff, principal planners of the Carson's latest Draft Land Management Plan, were on hand to help answer his questions. Rich explained how the Carson would be managed for "desired conditions," a key planning concept that directs the management of the land and resources. Sometimes the desired condition harks back to a time before fires were routinely suppressed, when a more natural forest prevailed, one where periodic blazes kept trees and brush thinned out.
The management plan will guide Carson National Forest staff in how to handle timber, roads, wildlife, grazing and recreation on 1.5 million acres of land in four counties.
Dreher leaned into the table and in a soft-spoken but direct manner asked: "How do you know what the forest looked like in the 1800s?"
Rich and Radcliff had a ready answer to that, too.
Dreher, who first lived in Llano in the '70s, moved away to make a living and then returned and bought land in 2013. He was concerned about the potential for "unintended consequences" that could result from the new forest plan, but after talking with planners said, "I would manage my timber the same way."
The open house format is designed to help citizens learn about forest planning in a casual, comfortable setting. The next open house is scheduled Aug. 21, from noon to 2 p.m., at the Carson Supervisor's Office.
"It's been educational," said Dreher about his experience. "While I was there, somebody from Senator Udall's office showed up."
About the forest staff, he added: "They've been very attentive. Very responsive."
Plenty of public opportunity
The draft plan has been five years in the making so far, though the final plan may be two years out. More than 60 public meetings in 26 local communities across the forest planning area have taken place.
The preferred plan and other plan alternatives are now up on the Carson's website. This is a kind of review phase. Comments are not being accepted just yet.
Planners expect the official 90-day comment period to open by the end of July or early August.
Once the comment period opens, you'll be able to read hard copies of the draft plan and alternatives at the Supervisor's Office and at Taos Public Library. And an additional dozen or so open houses are planned, too.
Internet access will be available at these meetings and staff will be standing by to help you input comments.
You've got five choices.
• Alternative One represents no change from the 1986 forest management plan.
• Alternative Two is the Carson's preferred alternative, the Draft Land Management Plan, or DLMP.
Essentially, DLMP proposes to "enhance the Carson National Forest's role in contributing to local economies," such as recreation, tourism, timber, livestock grazing and "other multiple use related activities."
• Alternative Three focuses on the interests of motorized recreation, mountain biking enthusiasts and winter and summer resort areas, but also details more fuelwood and timber production.
• Alternative Four highlights input from environmentalists and conservationists and offers greater protections for streams and wetlands, wildlife and wilderness.
•Alternative Five is billed as nearly the same as DLMP but recommends the full 67,996 acres of land identified as having five wilderness charachteristics be be considered for wilderness designation.
A few differences
Among the alternative plans, timber production, recreation and wilderness acreage may vary the widest.
For example, Alternative Three adds an objective not included in any of the other plans. It would convert 25 percent of existing one-family campsites at the five developed campgrounds to sites for groups, RVs and horse riders.
Alternative Four "obliterates or naturalizes" 40 miles of roads, double what Alternative Two's draft plan proposes.
Alternative Three would allow up to 417.7 million board feet of Timber Sale Quantity in the next 10 years, while there's less than 20 million board feet proposed under Alternative Four. The preferred draft plan proposes 158.5.
The draft plan supports a modest 9,189 acres of recommended wilderness. (This is not the same as designated wilderness. Only Congress designates wilderness.)
Alternative Four recommends nearly five times that number; Alternative Five nearly 6.5 times. Alternative Three recommends no wilderness acreage at all. (Lands with wilderness characteristics, however, do not change across alternatives.)
Each of the five alternatives would restore the structure and function of a minimum 200-300 acres of riparian areas annually.
Breaking down the alternatives
Carson planners Peter Rich and Alyssa Radcliff, along with Public Affairs officer Denise Ottaviano, discussed the alternatives with the Taos News. The complete transcript of the Q&A is available online at TaosNews.com. Here's an excerpt:
Land grants and acequia access
TN: The Draft Land Management Plan (Alternative Two) says that "management approaches will foster collaborative relationships with land grant and acequia governing bodies." How will you accomplish that?
PR: Project level decisions are what are going to get things done. The plan is an overarching document. It doesn't say we are going to cut trees in a certain place, doesn't say we're going to build this certain trail. All those are project level decisions. But we do have a guideline that speaks specifically toward this: Acequia systems are "accessible for operation, maintenance, repair and improvement."
TN: How are you going to build collaborative relationships in a community that may be distrustful and has centuries-old grievances? How do you break down those walls?
PR: In the old plan there was nothing about the Carson's social-cultural impact on communities, so that's a completely new thing we talk about, which is a really important change from the old plan. How that actually happens on the ground - the plan tells us to work toward it. It doesn't tell us exactly how to accomplish it. Nothing we write in the plan will resolve centuries-old grievances, but in the plan we recognize the importance of the forest to these land-based communities, and we recognize that we need to work together to manage the Carson.
TN: Will you be developing the how, the specific how, later?
PR: That's the work that we do all the time. The how. And we don't need to wait for this plan to start implementing some of those things. We are already working with communities in a different way, a more collaborative way. Right now we are working on an Acequia Guidance document that will clarify for our management and for the acequias how we can streamline our communication and facilitate their access.
AR: And it wasn't just us developing that document (Acequia Guidance). We developed it with the New Mexico Acequia Commission and some other acequias.
TN: How and when should wildfires be suppressed?
PR: We want fire to play its natural role in ecosystems. [There's] a lot more detail in the plan about what that means in each vegetation community and a lot more specifics about what the desired fire regime is in each vegetation type. But whether any specific fire gets suppressed or not suppressed is a project-level decision.
For example, in Ponderosa Pine the desired condition for fire is frequent, low severity fires across the entire landscape. So, if we get a fire in the PP that is restored, and that's going to burn with low severity, we have the option to utilize that fire for resource benefit to improve forest health. But we might suppress it at a larger acreage. If that fire is close to communities or in PP that is unnaturally dense, or if it's in the middle of the hot time of the summer, or we don't have the resources because there are a lot of fires going on, then maybe the decision is to fully suppress it right away.
TN: Are old-growth conifers protected from prescribed burns?
PR: Again, we're balancing a lot of things on every fire. Old growth is well distributed [across the forest], dynamic and shifts on the landscape over time. This is a desired condition, and a change from what we said in the 1986 plan. We want to protect old growth. But that doesn't mean we are going to put fires out because they are going to burn big trees.
TN: DLMP achieves at least 12,500 acres of prescribed and natural fires in ponderosa pine forests. This is a nine-fold increase [from the old plan]. How do you foresee such a big increase impacting the wild and urban interface areas? Do you foresee conflicts with communities?
PR: Any prescribed fire we do requires us to go through NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act).
TN: Does it require an Environmental Assessment at the least?
AR: It depends on how big it is. It depends on a lot of factors. But most times it's with an EA.
PR: After more than a century of fire suppression, small trees and deadwood that would have burned and been removed regularly have instead accumulated to levels much higher than there would have ever been in the past - levels that are not a natural state, with tons of fuel. So now when fires burn, they create dangerous situations for communities and for firefighters. We are far away from the historic [natural cycle] of fire on many parts of the forest. All four alternatives get us closer to that historic fire regime.
TN: People have a fear if they live close to the forest that as the Carson increases its acreage that will be allowable for fire--natural or prescribed--that's going to impact them. They may think, "Yeah, but this is my house. And the plan is increasing the risk to my house because of the nine-fold increase in allowable acreage."
PR: We do have Alternative One that would maintain the current level of fire on the landscape.
TN: What, in a nutshell, would you say to a homeowner who wants to leave things the way they've always been?
AR: There's going to be an increase of risk to your house.
TN: So right now, it's a dangerous situation.
TN: How many acres are leased for grazing?
AR: Under all of the alternatives, 1.3 million acres. Grazing capacity is not looked at on the forest plan level - that is project level NEPA, because I don't know every stitch of this land. We let our range management specialist who knows that land better, with the permittees and agencies, come up with that grazing capacity at that project level.
On the individual permits, we have 75 allotments that have 75 allotment management plans. And those plans say, for this allotment, here's how many grazable acres there are and how many cattle you can run.
TN: Do you have guidelines in the plan for improving grazing capacity?
AR: We don't make grazing capacity decisions forestwide, but we do have several sections related to range management.
TN: If I'm a rancher, where do I find information in the plan for my allotment?
AR: Montane-subalpine grasslands, grassland maintenance management areas, livestock grazing section and the Rural Historic Communities section.
TN: CNF evaluated 255 river segments on 192 rivers for wild, scenic or recreational classification. Can you give an example of a river or segment that received the recreational classification and explain how it met the required Outstanding Remarkable Evaluation Criterion?
PR: Yes. Río Grande del Rancho from the edge of private land near Southern Methodist University to the forest boundary in Talpa is classified as recreational. The classification for recreational is really confusing.
It's recreational not because it's outstanding for recreation, but because of the amount of development in the corridor. This segment is recreational because it has a highway and a power line. Its remarkable value is for wildlife and riparian. It's critical habitat for the Southwestern willow flycatcher.
TN: So recreational doesn't mean, say, rafting and boating.
PR: No, not at all. A recreational classification just means there's a highway and houses around. It's developed. The Río Vallecitos in El Rito is classified as wild, but the Outstanding Remarkable Value is recreation.
TN: That is confusing.
PR: It probably has good fishing waters; it's along the Continental Divide trail; [and] there are recreational values around that river. But the classification is wild because it is undeveloped.
TN: Some 62 stream segments saw their classification as wild or scenic downgraded to recreational or ineligible. What is the proposed classification of streams along popular hiking trails such as Gavilan, Italianos and Long Canyon?
PR: The current evaluation includes 16 river segments that are eligible with a recreational classification. There are about six rivers that were previously misclassified as wild or scenic that now have a recreational classification.
Gavilan, Italiano and Long Canyon were all eligible with a wild classification, but under the new evaluation they are not eligible. Under the previous evaluation for those streams, the Outstanding Remarkable Value was bighorn sheep habitat, but what we say now is that there is nothing about those rivers that is outstanding or remarkable--regionally or nationally--in terms of bighorn sheep habitat.
AR: And I just want to say that we do not designate wild and scenic rivers. We can say it's eligible, but we cannot designate.
TN: At the Recreation Summit you held two years ago, small business owners wanted a more streamlined NEPA process. One suggestion was that perhaps the Forest Service would contract with a third party to run NEPA and that would speed up the process.
AR: We do third-party NEPA for a lot of things, not just ski areas. It doesn't speed things up. They actually have to add another step and we have to review everything. We don't just sign off on what they write.
TN: For people who really want the NEPA process speeded up, what are you doing about that?
PR: The way we're streamlining is by looking at things on a larger scale. For example, we have the Acequia Guidance document that instead of every time that an acequia wants to do work having to start a NEPA decision for them, the guidance would clarify where NEPA would be appropriate and when we'd have to start NEPA.
Another example is a forest service document called the Programmatic Riparian Restoration. Instead of every time that we're going to go in and put in one-rock dams and we'd have to do a new NEPA for that, we can just refer to this Programmatic NEPA and say, we've disclosed the effects of putting in one-rock dams and we can go do that.
TN: Will multiple use continue along the Continental Divide Trail? Does the draft plan allow for additional motorized sections in the future?
PR: The Continental Divide Trail is mostly nonmotorized.
AR: And we have a standard that says, "Motorized use shall not be allowed on reconstructed segments of the CDT." This does not change across the alternative plans.
TN: How does DLMP adjust for more arid conditions?
PR: We have a Climate Change Vulnerability Assessment which models the future vulnerability of vegetation to climate. We don't necessarily adjust for more arid conditions. We are managing toward the historic or natural range of variability because that is the condition that has maintained ecosystems through droughts in the past.
Editor's note: Freelance reporter Meg Scherch Peterson worked with Audubon New Mexico to review the Species of Conservation Concern draft document.
Clarification: The Carson National Forest does not designate wilderness. The agency can only recommend to Congress and the President areas that meet the criteria for wilderness designation.