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New Mexico

Getting to Know Our Resident Forest Expert

This month, PBS is airing a new documentary called “Sky Island” which explores the Jemez Mountains of north-central New Mexico. Known among scientists as the epicenter of climate change in the southwest U.S., this area—also home to Bandelier National Monument—has grown warmer, faster, over the past 60 years than any other place in the state. The Nature Conservancy in New Mexico has been working in partnership with others to look at ways nature is adapting to this change and how we might be able to help.

Nature.org talked with Anne Bradley, Forest Conservation Program Director for the Conservancy’s New Mexico chapter, about counting tree rings, coming home, and why climate change doesn’t have to mean the end of hope.

Nature.org:

You have close connections to the Jemez Mountains. Tell us a little bit about your history with the area.

Bradley:

The Jemez Mountains are really my home country. I grew up in the town of Los Alamos, on the eastern edge of the mountains, and this place inspired me to pursue a career in conservation. In fact, my first real job during college was working summers at Bandelier National Monument. Seven years ago, after working 20 years as a plant ecologist for the Forest Service, I came back to the Jemez for my current role with the Conservancy. It was a sort of homecoming for me after all these years.

Nature.org:

The Jemez Mountains have been called the epicenter of climate change in the Southwest U.S. Did what you see surprise you?

Bradley:

Yes, the landscape is definitely different now. Over the last 20 years, large wildfires have killed thousands of acres of trees along the mountain range’s eastern face. My own family had to evacuate when the 2000 Cerro Grande Fire moved into Los Alamos. While native pine forests need periodic fire to remain healthy, these large crownfires—fires that burn at the tops of the trees—can be devastating to the landscape. Another change is earlier spring snowmelt, which creates a longer fire season and more chances for these big burns.

Our pinyon-juniper woodlands have also taken a big hit. Almost 10 years ago, we had a severe drought combined with unusually warm winter temperatures. Around 90 percent of the mature pinyon pine died, leaving the landscape filled with grey and lifeless trees. The most surprising thing was how quickly it happened. That event gave scientists an idea of how close to a critical threshold our forests and woodlands are right now, and it made us realize that significant changes due to climate may not happen gradually.

Nature.org:

Wow, it’s difficult not to get depressed hearing some of that information. How do you maintain a sense of hope?

Bradley:

I know I am working in forests that have a built-in ability to tolerate some change and that have recovered from naturally occurring drought and fire. Also, we’ve discovered there are some do-able, practical steps we can take right now to reduce the impacts. This has been very empowering. Finally, I believe that people care about what happens to places like the Jemez, and will take action if they understand the problem and their role in the solution. Finding ways to reduce contributions to greenhouse gas levels, or engaging in the public discourse on climate change are basic steps people can take to help move the needle.

Nature.org:

It’s great to know that there are practical actions people can take to make a difference with climate change. Can you tell me more about the science work happening in the Jemez?

Bradley:

We are extremely lucky to have a wealth of talented scientists working in the Jemez Mountains. It turns out scientists fall in love with this place too! The Jemez truly is a living laboratory. Climate modelers are helping us understand how climate change will likely play out over time. Forest ecologists are analyzing tree rings and looking back across the centuries to find out how forests responded to natural cycles of drought and disturbance. Based on the current data, we think it is likely our forests will be moving “uphill”, leaving the lower elevations for cooler climes. Numerous weather stations and gauges around the area measure stream flow, and hydrologists are using that information to better understand changes over time and whether our restoration treatments in the watersheds are improving stream conditions for native fish and water availability for people downstream.

Nature.org:

Sounds like interesting and comprehensive work. Who else is involved?

Bradley:

The Jemez Mountains are managed primarily by federal agencies and two Native American tribes. We work with many dedicated people who share our concern for the health of the mountains. The Conservancy doesn’t own the land in the Jemez Mountains, but we play an important role in bringing people together to address common problems.

Keeping our partners informed and helping them find new resources and strategies is a big part of my job. Right now, we’re working on an ambitious restoration plan for the 210,000-acre Jemez River watershed. The Conservancy is also leading a project that engages federal biologists and students from the Jemez Pueblo to design the best restoration treatments for habitat used by the Jemez Mountains salamander—an animal that lives nowhere else in the world. Making our forests and streams healthier, and improving habitat for wildlife, will help these places adapt to the stresses associated with climate change.

Nature.org:

How will the work being done in the Jemez have an impact on a larger scale? 

Bradley:

Many forests across the southwestern U.S. are experiencing similar climate impacts, and land managers have the same need to identify activities that will help their forests adapt. The working relationships we have in the Jemez provide an opportunity to try new things and evaluate how well they work. Our Jemez Mountains Project is part of a network of sites—the Southwest Climate Change Initiative—where Conservancy scientists and their partners share ideas and scientific findings with each other and the broader conservation community.

Nature.org:

It’s encouraging to hear about the impact your work is having beyond the Jemez borders. Before we end, would you mind sharing one of your fondest memories of the Jemez?

Bradley:

Of course. People often have the impression that New Mexico is one huge desert. But, we do have real winters here in the Jemez. Growing up, I loved hiking or skiing on snowy winter nights. We have wonderful clear skies where you can really see the stars. Moving along in the quiet under those skies made it easy to feel like a part of nature.


Anne Bradley directs the Forest Conservation Program for The Nature Conservancy in New Mexico. She has a master’s degree in Botany from the University of Montana, with a specialization in fire ecology. Before coming to Conservancy, she worked as a naturalist for the National Park Service, and then spent two decades working for the Forest Service, as a plant ecologist. Anne works with federal, state and tribal partners to conserve forests and wildlife habitat in New Mexico, with a particular focus on fire restoration and practical climate change adaptation strategies for managers.

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