As printed in the Albuquerque Journal on November 17, 2011.
By Terry Sullivan, State Director, The Nature Conservancy in New Mexico
Congress doesn’t seem to agree on much these days. So when bipartisan support for a proactive environmental program comes around, it’s time to take notice. The Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program is a science-driven, money-saving job creator. Something we can all agree upon.
This summer, fires raged throughout the Southwest, costing hundreds of millions of dollars to extinguish. In New Mexico, the Las Conchas Fire – the largest in the state’s history – charred more than 150,000 acres and tallied a $48.5 million bill to suppress. Cleanup and infrastructure damage may double this number.
Unfortunately, catastrophic fires like these are becoming more prevalent. A combination of drought, fire suppression, invasive species and climate change has resulted in unhealthy forests across the state. Unless more aggressive action is taken to treat these degraded landscapes, more frequent, larger and costly fires are a real possibility.
The restoration program is a good start at addressing the problem. Created by Congress in 2009 to foster science-based restoration in National Forests around the country, the program found a major champion in our very own Sen. Jeff Bingaman. He believes the program “is bringing communities from around the country together to create jobs, to restore forest and watershed health, and to reduce the costs of wildfire suppression at impressive scales.”
The first year of the program saw 10 projects across the country awarded with funding. In New Mexico, the Jemez Mountains project received almost $400,000 to treat an area that encompasses part of the Santa Fe National Forest and Valles Caldera National Preserve.
The math for this project is fairly simple. If Congress continues to fund this work for the next eight years – at a cost of $31 million – we will have restored an area larger than the one that burned this year in Las Conchas. In addition to the significant cost savings resulting from these preventive measures, the project will create 575 jobs – mostly in the private sector, where companies are putting youths to work in the forest.
Right now, Congress is debating the funding level for this program, and New Mexico could greatly benefit from their decision. In fact, if the program is appropriated its highest level, it is very likely that another project site in the Zuni Mountains, southwest of Grants, will be included in the expanded program.
Much like the Jemez project, the work in the Zuni Mountains will address a landscape in dire need of treatment. The Zuni Mountains are a popular tourist destination; steeped in the rich history that defines our great state. The people of Zuni Pueblo and Ramah Navajo Chapter have long used these lands, and their youths are among those who will be employed by the project. It is estimated that, if funded, this project will save $37 million in future wildfire management costs.
While Congress has been very supportive of this program, funding is not a given. We must remind our representatives that these programs are important and valued. Bingaman has sent a letter to his colleagues requesting support for full funding of the program to enable new projects like the Zuni Mountains to be funded. I encourage you do the same.
A recent report on the program was compiled under the auspices of a coalition of more than 144 agencies and organizations. It shows the incredible impact and potential of the program.
New Mexican’s love for forests was demonstrated this summer as fire raged in the Jemez Mountains. Fortunately, our policymakers have given us a new way to go about fixing our forests’ problems, and they have done so in a way that fits these fiscally austere times by ensuring our tax dollars are invested wisely and efficiently.