State Land Office leads the way in watershed health

Published: May 11, 2018 3:36 pmViews: 19

FIGHTING FIRE WITH FIRE – ,Above, SLO Field Operations Division crews and partners targeted abundant fuels in the forest near Black Lake to improve watershed health in advance of the upcoming wildfire season. Below, the watershed as it appeared prior to treatment.

SANTA FE, NM – In 1736, Benjamin Franklin famously advised fire-threatened residents of Philadelphia that “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”.

Fast forward 282 years and that sage advice remains both relevant and timely.

The current New Mexico fire forecast is downright scary: Parched forests, unseasonably warm weather, high winds, and an abundance of forest fuels have set the stage for one of the most potentially catastrophic wildfire seasons in recent memory.

But State Land Commissioner Aubrey Dunn isn’t panicking. He knows his agency’s lands are in good shape to weather the pending storm thanks to his continued efforts with regard to improving watershed health.

Since Dunn took office in 2015, the State Land Office (SLO) has poured more than $5.184 million on various restoration and remediation projects. When all is said and done, more than 52,000 acres of State Trust Lands will have been treated under Dunn’s watch, greatly reducing the risk of wildfires.

“I’ve invested millions of dollars to protect the health and beauty of State Trust Lands and our Field Operations Division has been working hard to ensure that we do everything we can to minimize the risks associated withwildfires,” Commissioner Dunn said. “We’ve set the bar high as far as our commitment to watershed health; I don’t think any other agency has come close to accomplishing what we’ve done over the course of the pastthree-plus years.”

One of the primary targets of the treatments is the dense fuels which typically clogs forests and watersheds and feeds devastating fires. At Black Lake – one of several watershed restoration projects – SLO crews teamed with several partners to tackle these fuels.

Field Operations Division Deputy Director Will Barnes said crews targeted the forest’s ponderosa pine, mixed conifer, and spruce populations.

“As a result of historic fire suppression, high densities of these small-diameter trees make these forests susceptible to large, hot fire,” Barnes said. “Especially in this year of record-low precipitation, high-risk forests are even more susceptible.”

By reducing the fuels that have accumulated over decades, the risk of loss of resources through catastrophic wildfires is dramatically reduced.

“Instead of consuming old growth trees, fires – both naturally occurring and those initiated through prescribed fire efforts – will consume grasses and forbs thus preserving the beauty and maintaining the overall health ofthe watershed,” Commissioner Dunn added.

Dunn is also particularly proud of the agency’s efforts to conserve another precious resource – water.

“In addition to reducing the fuels, we targeted cedar trees, which are a huge drain on the aquifer,” said Commissioner Dunn. “It’s estimated that a mature cedar requires more than 30 gallons per day to survive; by removing around 90 trees per acre from a particular aquifer, we’re saving millions and millions of gallons ofwater each year.”

Managing high-risk forests has proven to be a complicated endeavor due to checkerboard ownership patterns and limited funding resources. Commissioner Dunn, however, recognized the challenges facing his agency, reached out to other agencies, and established solid working relationships with several collaborative partners.

One highly effective approach has been the Collaborative Forest Restoration Program (CFRP). This unique grant series, funded primarily through the U.S. Forest Service, requires collaborators to work together to define planning areas, leverage resources, and monitor their results.

At Black Lake, the CFRP saw SLO team up with EMNRD’s Forestry Division, The Nature Conservancy, TheForest Stewards Guild, and local fire departments from Moreno Valley, Angel Fire, Guadalupita, Taos County, Taos Ski Valley, and Santa Fe to treat thousands of acres of high-risk forest via mechanical thinning and prescribed fire.

In addition to these partners, Commissioner Dunn said SLO will team with the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, the Department of Game and Fish, numerous soil and water conservation districts and a wide variety of local vendors and community acres to treat more than 33,000 acres statewide.

Commissioner Dunn’s commitment to watershed health is something that will benefit the Trust and itsbeneficiaries well into the future following the passage of HB 24, which established the State Trust Lands Restoration and Remediation Fund.

One percent of revenues from the SLO’s Land Maintenance Fund diverts to the recently-established State Trust Lands Restoration and Remediation Fund, establishing a consistent funding mechanism for these critical projects.

“It’s a great feeling to know that the State Land Office is no longer dependent on whether lawmakers decide tofund our restoration and remediation projects from year to year,” Commissioner Dunn said. “I’m proud toleave the Trust and its beneficiaries with a dedicated revenue stream that ensures our watersheds are as healthy and viable as possible for many generations to come.”