Branching Out

The Nature Conservancy holds free, online lecture on community-led forest stewardship

Forest management is on the minds of many New Mexicans after the record-breaking wildfires that ravaged 899,453 acres across the state this year, and The Nature Conservancy is ready to talk about it.

The environmental nonprofit is holding a free, virtual event on Thursday, July 28 from 10-11 am, bringing together speakers from across Northern New Mexico and the Navajo Nation to discuss how communities collaborate to support sustainable traditional and cultural forestry practices.

The event will be moderated by Matt Piccarello, forest and watershed health manager for The Nature Conservancy, in conversation with Mario Atencio, vice-president of the Torreon/Starlake Chapter of the Navajo Nation Government; James Duran, forest supervisor for the Carson National Forest; and J.R. Logan, a member of the Cerro Negro Forest Council and owner of Del Medio Forestry. It’s part of the Taos Lecture series, supported by the Taos Ski Valley Foundation.

SFR spoke with J.R. Logan, who has lived north of Taos in the village of San Cristobal for ten years. In 2018, he helped to form a group called the Cerro Negro Forest Council, a community forest stewardship group that shares membership between the residents of San Cristobal, Valdez and Gallina Canyon. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

SFR: How did the Cerro Negro Forest Council come to be?

JRL: The council shares membership between San Cristobal, where I live, and another community called Valdez that’s just to the south of us. Back in 2018, our two neighborhoods sort of recognized that we had two problems with a lot of overlap.

The first problem is getting firewood. The Forest Service sells permits but they’re for ‘dead and down,’ which means you have to go scavenge through the woods, for dead trees or trees that have tipped over. That’s a time consuming and silly process and becomes more and more so every year as the woods are getting picked through.

The second problem was that the forests between our two little villages had grown really thick with vegetation, unnaturally thick with vegetation. It was creating this wildfire hazard for our communities and the people who live here, but maybe more importantly for the watershed. So we came up with this group, the Cerro Negro Forest Council and applied for a grant [through The Nature Conservancy] the idea being that we wanted to have access to those forests that are quite literally in our backyards. Then we’d have more convenient access to firewood and at the same time, do the ecologically sound thinning work to improve the health of the forest and reduce that wildfire threat.

What’s the model?

We call our program the ‘forest mayordomo’ model because we’re adopting acequia culture, the culture and the structure of a mayordomo who serves not as a ‘boss,’ but more as a steward of the resource. Where we live that’s a cultural touchstone—you say the word ‘mayordomo’ around here and it elicits a certain respect and understanding of what that role is, and an appreciation that we’re all in this together.

If a leñero—a woodcutter—signs up for an acre with the Cerro Negro Forest Council, they get to keep all the firewood that they cut off of that acre, which is between four and five cords of wood. When the work is done, the council will cut a check for $300 and then they have the opportunity to do another acre.

There’s a handful of guys who are kind of making a living off of this. It’s not like they’re not gonna get rich doing it, but it pays as much or more than cleaning hotel rooms or washing dishes, and you get to work at your own pace and spend all day in the woods or as many days in the woods as you want.

Were regulations a barrier?

Yes, of course. The idea of a community-led project to thin on national forest lands is such a square peg in a round hole. The agency is more than a century old, and it wasn’t designed to encourage and allow for this sort of community participation. But at this point, the agency is really eager to see these kinds of solutions come forward.

But our experience was that even with the folks in positions of power who had a real, genuine interest in collaborating and developing a program like this, the rules and regulations—basically from soup to nuts—had to be reworked or massaged or reconsidered in order to allow for the project. One example that’s really simple that we wouldn’t have thought would’ve been a problem was finding a way to print permits so that the people cutting wood can haul the wood off the project. It took weeks or months for the Forest Service to figure out how to plug this into their system, because the agency is designed to account for timber—so part of their job has always been measuring the volume of ‘timber’ that’s coming off of national forest lands. Being able to track ownership from when a tree is still standing to when it’s in somebody’s yard or in somebody’s woodlot; their systems really don’t account for a many-users-involved project like this one. That was one of countless examples of why programs like this have been really challenging to get off the ground in the past.

What’s different this time?

One reason is folks like James Duran, who’s the [Carson National Forest] supervisor, really, really wanted to see this happen so he and his staff worked really hard to figure it out. James is from Northern New Mexico, so he recognizes the nuances of the complex relationship that people in Northern New Mexico have with the Forest Service, the feelings of ostracization and exploitation that people feel and have felt around here for centuries. And I think James genuinely wants to use his position of authority within the agency to address some of those concerns in ways that are culturally relevant. For that, I give him a huge tip of the hat.

I think the other reason is that the agency is freaking out because the condition of our forests, especially in New Mexico, are just primed for these kinds of fires like we saw in late spring and early summer. That’s not gonna be the last fire we see like that and the agency simply doesn’t have the capacity or the tools at its disposal to address the problem fast. So they’re becoming increasingly open to new ideas, new programs, new partnerships as a way to beef up their ability to treat forests, especially in ways that are relevant and beneficial to these local communities.

Were there any other barriers?

We definitely saw and continue to see wariness even in our community towards programs and projects like this. The truth is, the people we work with at the Forest Service are great people and support this project. But the monolithic, behemoth agency they work for is challenging. The idea of a local Hispano community working with the Forest Service regularly, to know them on a first name basis and know their kids and not give them the finger when they drive past in some of these communities is totally foreign.

The loss of a lot of these forested lands when the United States invaded way back in 1848 still feels like it happened yesterday for a lot of these communities. Folks around here will absolutely tie current social and cultural problems like drug abuse, underemployment, domestic violence—they will draw a straight line from those social ills back to the loss of a land base that supported this culture and the Forest Service as the agency tasked with managing those lands is absolutely the villain. That’s a long history of mistrust and broken promises and management decisions that generally haven’t benefited local communities. And that’s what we’re trying to overcome—this little 300 acres is only the very first step.

How did the communities get onboard?

I think for everybody involved, especially when we sign up a leñero, some of them have a hard time wrapping their heads around the idea that this one-acre block on national forest lands is theirs, that they can go in there and cut the trees that have been designated for cutting and nobody’s gonna show up with a gun and a badge and start harassing them about anything. It is a paradigm shift.

It took folks around here a couple of years to believe that the project was gonna have this kind of longevity, even just three or four years. Now that those of us that are cutting on it are in the groove, our routine is all the same. All of us have two piles of wood, the seasoned pile and the green pile. And that’s a practical matter, but I think it’s also symbolic of the fact that we have faith that this program is gonna continue.

Do you see the council as a model for more widespread change?

What I would love to see systematically changed is more opportunities for communities to not just have a seat at some meeting room table to be able to vent their frustrations or offer their input on plans or projects, but be really brought into the process as co-managers, as people who aren’t just stakeholders on a NEPA document but who are actively involved in the restoration of forests. I think that accomplishes two things. One, it relieves the burden on the Forest Service because they simply don’t have the resources to take on the magnitude of this problem. But it also forces communities to step up and not just throw stones, but actually have some skin in the game. So whether you’re a Hispano community in Northern New Mexico or a tribe or a chapter house on the reservation, the agency needs to find ways to let go of the reins of power and control and allow for more of these types of projects so that everybody doesn’t suffer the consequences.

Do you hope to see this model repeated?

Our project has seen a tremendous amount of interest from neighboring counties, neighboring states, neighboring communities. It’s being replicated already in three other places in Taos County, which is awesome. It’s proliferating, there’s clearly a demand and an idea that we can embrace this kind of work. But this new model is just not nearly enough. It’s a drop in the bucket compared to what we need to be doing.

If the Forest Council is proud of anything, it’s cracking open the door and giving people some hope that agencies like the Forest Service are willing to try something different and it’s not just rhetoric, it’s actual real programs and projects on the ground.

The foundational premise is that the agency is open to new ideas and is a genuine partner. As long as that foundation exists, we see tons of potential in taking advantage of that shift in mentality and actually doing something meaningful about the wildfire crisis.

To register for the event, click here.

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