U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernández, D-NM, met with the Carson National Forest Service and the Cerro Negro Forest Council in Valdez on Tuesday (Sept. 7) to discuss forest thinning, fuelwood and economic support to local communities as part of the congresswoman’s Agua es Vida Tour.

“We live in the West, and we have three different pieces that make fire inevitable in our landscapes,” said Dennis Carril, fire ecologist with the Santa Fe National Forest.

“One is the vast amount of fuel that we’re surrounded by. Two is the weather conditions – we're hot, dry and windy. And what’s missing? Ignition sources,” said Carril.

Forest fires used to only be caused by lightning. “That second ignition source is us – humans,” he said. “Be that campfires, be that cigarettes, be that power lines, be it arson, whatever it might be.”

Carril explained that up until around 150 years ago, fires would occur every 10 years, and would burn dead wood, kill off smaller trees and lift the crowns of existing trees.

“We’re paying what I like to call, and like what California is facing right now, we’re paying an ecological debt of having fire out of that system for so many cycles,” he said.

Leger Fernández met with members of the U.S. Forest Service, Taos Pueblo and the Cerro Negro Forest Council on Tuesday (Sep. 7). The dozen attendees drove over twisted dirt roads until they reached the Carson National Forest where their outdoor meeting took place.

“Northern New Mexico needs thinning,” said Dennis Olonia, president of the Cerro Negro Forest Council. “Our houses are burning and our communities are in danger.”

Olonia and others in the Valdez community created the forest council a few years ago based on a concept of shared stewardship. “Similar to an acequia association,” said Olonia.

Their new approach would be to buy permits from the Forest Service, and assign 1-acre plots to local workers for clearing. Called llenores, the workers would earn $300 per plot, and could burn, sell or give away the wood they cleared.

“In Gallina Canyon, we’ve cleared around 50 acres on the North Side,” said Art Montoya, mayordomo for the Cerro Negro Forest Council. He said the council has cleared an additional 60 acres in the region, providing protection from future forest fires.

“I sit on the Natural Resources Committee,” said Leger Fernández. “I chose that committee because, New Mexico, if we counted our public land alone, we are the 10th largest state.”

“Forest Service is not under our jurisdiction, it’s under the USDA,” she continued. “But what we need to make sure we start doing is not having the siloed agencies, in the same way we can’t have siloed communities.”

“This is a Collaborative Forest Restoration Project (CFRP). They got $300,000, and that’s what’s funding this project to keep the structure in place,” said James Duran, a forest supervisor for the Carson National Forest. The money was provided to the Cerro Negro Forest Council in the form of a grant.

“Is there any monitoring of what’s happening?” asked Leger Fernández.

“The monitoring is done through a collaborative, where students have come out – Taos High School students. There’s a teacher there that’s very interested in forestry,” said Duran.

“It’s also giving students the opportunity to reconnect with the forest, reconnect with more of a traditional way of stewardship,” he continued. “And I think that’s the thing that is very unique to northern New Mexico.”

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