Creeping drought and destructive crown fires in recent years are making New Mexicans who live at the edges of dry forests uneasy. Ernie Torrez, a cattle rancher in La Jara, worries the next big wildfire could strike home, demolish nearly everything in sight and create flood conditions that could wipe out the community’s watershed.
“These fires are killing us off,” says Torrez. He’s not exaggerating: Three of the worst fires in Southwest history wiped out nearly a million acres in the last three years.
Torrez and his neighbor Ricardo Duran, who live in the shadow of the Jemez Mountains west of Cochiti, say they would like to see immediate removal of the most flammable fuels in the forest. They are so frustrated with the slow pace of US Forest Service efforts that they are considering a rogue effort to do work themselves—in violation of federal law.
“Put yourself in our shoes here. We’ve been waiting. It hasn’t been thinned in what, 25 to 30 years?” says Torrez. “This thing needs to be done now. We don’t want to be victims. We don’t want to be statistics.”
Like many citizens of La Jara, Torrez’ family has been in Northern New Mexico for generations. Looking west from Torrez’ property towards the land of the Jicarilla Apache, cattle graze leisurely. Yet, no water flows in the nearby Rio Puerco. They’ve seen snow in the last month, but not much. The Santa Fe National Forest boundary is just up the hill. Sheepherders who used to graze their flocks there periodically torched the dry brush, says Torrez, and logging operations inevitably thinned out the forest too.
Yet forests are increasingly governed federally, and environmental restrictions on logging are set in place to protect species like the Mexican spotted owl. Torrez points to lack of forest management as one cause of these drastic fires. “You can’t preserve something if you’re letting it burn 100,000 acres at a time,” he says.
"Put yourself in our shoes here. We’ve been waiting. It hasn’t been thinned in what, 25 to 30 years?"
Forests looked different in years past, he says. “You used to be able to ride a horse through there, all the way through the wilderness. I’ve done it myself, on the San Jose trail, the Vacas trail, the San Gregorio trail. Now you can’t move in there,” says Torrez.
One bolt of lightning or a downed electric line could light this fuel and cause a catastrophic crown fire like Las Conchas, a fire so hot that microbes in the soil don’t regenerate and topsoil becomes loose, says Torrez. At that point, rain could erode the soil instead of soaking in, causing mudslides that smother local ditches.
The US Forest Service, which oversees approximately 9 million acres of land in New Mexico, has embarked on a number of projects in recent years to mitigate wildfires and address their damage, including the Southwest Jemez Mountains Landscape Restoration Project in the area near La Jara.
The Forest Service still has a lot of ground to cover. Prescribed burns and “fuel reduction” are two of the methods they employ. Saving the biggest and healthiest trees, eliminating those with bugs or disease and retaining some dead trees for wildlife are guidelines for responsible thinning.
Just as the Forest Service can’t enter private residents’ property to minimize the risk of trees too close to a home, average citizens are not permitted to do thinning on national forest land under federal law, says Ronald Gallegos, the fire prevention officer in the Jemez Ranger District.
“The government won’t put themselves at risk in litigation” with such an unconventional move. “It’ll take us all the way to Washington, probably,” Gallegos says.
Torrez is hoping Sandoval County commissioners will declare a state of emergency to enable La Jara residents to do the work to thin the forest themselves. In a battle between county and federal powers, Otero County commissioners made a similar plan in 2011 to decrease fire danger through logging in the Lincoln National Forest, an act that bypassed federal law.
Otero County Commissioner Ronny Rardin says federal agents threatened to throw everyone, including US Rep. Steve Pearce, R-NM, and the commissioners, in jail when they gathered for a “tree party,” but County Sheriff Benny House defended the group. In the end, Forest Service and county officials agreed through the District Attorney’s Office not to lock each other up.
The tree party only cut about a quarter of an acre, but now the Forest Service and the county have a working relationship, says Rardin.
Torrez say an immediate local thinning operation in La Jara could protect topsoil and water quality.
“We have rights here that predate the existence of the Forest Service,” he says, “but they act like they’re our landlords to the point where they would take us to jail for what we want to do right now.”
It desn’t matter who removes dry fuel from the forest as long as it gets done, says Torrez. For him, the feds are not moving fast enough. “We just want to protect our watershed,” he says. “How long can we last, without our water? This could be our death song, or not.”
Officer Gallegos says snowpack is down 30 percent from last year, so fire risk is high again this year. Some meteorologists say we may have a wet spring. “I hope that we do,” says Gallegos. “It’s a race against time. It’s not if it’s going to burn. It’s when it’s going to burn.”
“We’ve got to fight for our way of life because it’s the right way,” says Torrez “and it’s the safe way for this forest.”