The sky over David Old is falling.
At least that’s how he likens the inability to cut wood in New Mexico’s national forests.
“It was like a meteor landed on your head all of the sudden,” said Old, the owner of a small Las Vegas, N.M., company that produces wood products for clients throughout the country. “It’s an overall negative, and I’ll tell you right now I don’t need any negatives in my life.”
A temporary ban on collecting firewood that panicked many New Mexico residents who rely on the forests to heat their homes now threatens the state’s commercial timber industry, and anxious business owners say they grow more concerned with each passing day.
The U.S. Forest Service has reinstated personal firewood permit sales after a federal judge in Arizona amended a court-ordered injunction that originally halted wood harvesting in the state’s five national forests. But the modified order excludes commercial firewood gathering and other timber management — putting hundreds of jobs across New Mexico at risk and spurring financial worry for business owners who turn timber into dollars.
The inability to cut wood has already led to one major client walking away from Old, whose company, Old Wood, makes wood floors and other wood products for projects and clients that include the Chicago Children’s Museum, a LaGuardia Airport terminal in New York, Walmart and Whole Foods.
“I had three phone calls from firewood clients wanting to know if we were out of business,” Old said. “Major grocery store chains wanting to know if they need to go elsewhere for wood. It’s bad, it’s really bad.
Mt. Taylor Manufacturing — which has locations in Milan, N.M, and Albuquerque and employs close to 50 people — could close its doors if the ongoing commercial injunction isn’t lifted in the next few months, said owner Matt Alan.
The company contracts for timber, operates a sawmill and produces wood pellets, wood chips and landscaping products. It opened in 1999. If the national forests aren’t again open for business in the next few months, Alan said he worries he’ll have to start layoffs in December.
“That’s a hell of a Christmas present, isn’t it?” Alan said. “I’m contemplating whether I want to continue in this business. It’s a hard way to make a living.
“This could go on for a year. We don’t know.”
Alan’s business and others like it are in a tough financial position as they wait for a judge to decide whether timber management companies and businesses that rely on them are damaging the habitat of the threatened Mexican spotted owl.
Even if Mt. Taylor shuts down and lays off every employee, Alan said he still has overhead costs to pay, including a recently purchased $75,000 piece of wood-processing machinery.
U.S. District Judge Raner Collins halted all timber management activity in five New Mexico national forests and one in Arizona in late September in response to a 2013 lawsuit filed by Santa Fe-based WildEarth Guardians. The environmental group had contended the U.S. Forest Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, by failing to keep adequate tabs on the Mexican spotted owl population, had not complied with the Endangered Species Act.
Forest Service spokesman Shayne Martin said the agency has been in communication with pueblo communities, state and federal lawmakers, the Governor’s Office and others to gain an understanding of the full impact of the injunction.
“We’re still unsure on a lot of issues about what it actually means,” Martin said.
By Thursday, the Forest Service must submit to the judge a list of other activities beyond personal firewood gathering — including pueblo cultural activities — that need clarification, Martin said.
The injunction halted at least two-dozen wood-cutting projects, according to the Forest Service.
Brent Racher, president of the New Mexico Forest Industry Association and owner of a small firewood collection business, said his crew is trying to line up landscaping projects on private land, though he had planned to spend the next several months gathering firewood in the national forests.
State Republican Party Chairman Steve Pearce slammed the injunction for hurting companies that rely on the forest and putting New Mexico jobs at risk. Pearce argued timber management companies actually boost forest health because the thinning helps protect against catastrophic fires — a point echoed by Old and others in the timber business.
Todd Schulke, a co-founder of the Center for Biological Diversity, which is committed to protecting the Mexican spotted owl and other threatened and endangered species, agreed “some judicious thinning done right and in the right places can facilitate natural processes such as fire,” bolstering forest health if large, old trees are left in place for species like the spotted owl.
Such thinning is particularly healthy for the forest in areas that are likely to require controlled burns to prevent larger forest fires, he said.
“We absolutely need to understand the impacts to Mexican spotted owls from forest restoration and large-scale unwanted fire,” Schulke said. “We are required by law to protect species on the endangered species list. So the studies need to be done. That said, it seems like an overreaction to stop things like tradition fuel wood cutting and trail maintenance. This has happened before, in the ’90s, and people should have learned this lesson.”
The Trump administration announced in August it would change how the Endangered Species Act act is applied. Among the changes, federal officials would be allowed to factor in economics when weighing whether a species should be on the endangered list.
Interior Secretary David Bernhardt has praised the changes and is visiting New Mexico next week for an oil and gas industry meeting.