For the first time in a decade, the state has released a broad forest management plan that looks at how to restore and fortify woodlands and watersheds amid the threats of climate change, increased wildfire risks and encroaching urban growth.
State officials are touting key changes in the 2020 New Mexico Forest Action Plan that they say will make it more effective than the first version crafted in 2010.
The U.S. Forest Service requires each state to come up with a forest action plan every 10 years under the federal farm bill.
This time around, the state is collaborating with federal agencies, tribes, nonprofits, conservation groups and private landholders rather than going it alone, State Forester Laura McCarthy said.
“Since 2010, it’s become obvious that no single agency can fully address the impacts of climate change and other forces on our forests and watersheds, and that we all need to work together,” McCarthy said.
This collaboration enables the state Forestry Division to better carry out the 2019 Agreement for Shared Stewardship between the state and Forest Service, she added.
The shared stewardship pact aims to boost cooperation between state and federal agencies, especially in dealing with escalating challenges brought on by climate change — longer wildfire seasons, more severe droughts, depleted waterways, diminished wildlife habitat and threats to residents living near forests.
In an email, Forest Service spokesman Shayne Martin agreed the agencies are working to align their resources on the forest action plan. “Our shared goal is to reduce the risk from wildfire, protect communities and better address the ever increasing effects of climate change,” Martin wrote.
The action plan seeks to go even further and cover lands owned by other entities, McCarthy said, noting the Nature Conservancy, nine pueblos and the New Mexico Forest Industry Association are among the dozens of diverse partners.
McCarthy noted their participation in the plan is voluntary.
“The point is to have a shared vision of what we need to accomplish together in terms of the future we want for New Mexico’s forests and watersheds,” she said.
The plan aligns with Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham’s 2019 executive order to combat climate change. A working group was created from the order on how to manage forests effectively under a changing climate, McCarthy said.
Two basic principles will be applied to this end, she said: avoiding catastrophic wildfires and adding more trees to absorb carbon emissions, both through reforestation and expanding the state’s woodlands.
Crews are collecting seeds, including from ponderosa pines, that could be used in genetic research to produce a tree that could withstand whatever the climate conditions are in the year 2100, McCarthy said.
The state also has adopted the Forest Service’s methods for protecting and restoring areas around rivers and streams, she said. The forest plan calls for applying the methods in state forests.
A Santa Fe environmental group that is not among the state’s partners but is familiar with the plan gave the new version a mixed review.
“I think this plan is a really positive step — it’s also not the gold standard for 21st-century forest management,” said Madeleine Carey, conservation specialist for WildEarth Guardians.
Carey thinks there is still too much emphasis on trying to reduce wildfire risk and not enough on combating climate change.
The plan refers to wildfires 178 times versus 62 times for climate change, Carey said. Forest health is mentioned only a dozen times, she said.
Tree thinning and prescribed burns don’t guarantee wildfires won’t ignite and spread, Carey said, noting last year’s raging wildfires in Oregon blazed across clear-cut meadows because of dry vegetation and high winds.
She also noted the Forest Service’s riparian plan, which the state is emulating, is being reviewed by the Biden administration because it might be too industry friendly.
“These forestry departments are rooted in the production of timber,” Carey said. “So it’s a really big shift to go from saying, ‘We’re going to manage for timber harvest’ to say, ‘We’re going to manage for the biologic integrity and biodiversity of these forest systems in the face of climate change.’ ”
Still, she applauded McCarthy for basing the plan much more on science than it was in the past.
McCarthy said reforestation will be a priority.
The state, she said, is looking into a reforestation technique that is more selective and surgical in how trees are planted.
For instance, in a 30,000-acre burn scar left by the 2011 Las Conchas Fire, crews will plant seeds in pockets where water collects so the trees will thrive. That beats the traditional method of mass planting trees in dry, barren areas where they won’t grow at all, she said.
“This is the kind of strategy that’s in this plan,” McCarthy said.