What took place in September 2011 in the rural New Mexico town of Cloudcroft could become the model for all who want to cut the red tape. Hundreds of people were at what is being called the “Otero County Tree Party” in support of realigning the federal government and putting it back where it belongs.
Ten years ago, the New Mexico State Legislature passed SB1, which was signed into law by then-governor Gary Johnson. The legislature overwhelmingly voted for it, believing that it was a necessity borne out of “Uncontrollable, but preventable wildfires, and unresponsive federal agencies.” The Forest Service’s (USFS) inaction to reduce or remove the fuel buildup put “the lives and property of the citizens of New Mexico” at risk.
SB1 exerted local sovereignty over public lands. But it had never been tested.
Then, in 2011, the Wallow and the Las Conchas Fires left severe economic and social impacts—much like the 2000 Los Alamos Fire that prompted SB1.
For the past decade, the folks in Otero County have been trying to work with the USFS to solve the problem of the Lincoln National Forest. It was unhealthy, like a tinderbox. Each time the county leadership thought the members were making progress with the Forest Service officials, the officials were transferred. The stall tactics worked until the summer of 2011, when the county declared a state of emergency.
Ronny Rardin, chairman of the Board of Otero County Commissioners, told me they didn’t want to be the next disaster. People’s lives were in grave danger. The commissioners drafted the Emergency Forest Management Plan. On September 9, a public hearing was held. One-hundred twenty people supported the plan. Two opposed it. The commission voted to move forward.
For the past 20 years, since the Mexican Spotted Owl was listed as an endangered species, New Mexico’s forests have become overgrown. Thousands of jobs were lost, sawmills closed up. Fires became wild.
A study done earlier this year by the USFS’s Pacific Research Station, and validated by work done by Sandia National Laboratories, shows that the healthiest forests in the arid climate of the Southwest have approximately 50 trees per acre. Many of the forests in the Southwest have as many as 2,500 trees per acre. Forest management practices that aim to restore owl habitat, rather than that of an overall healthy forest, have contributed to increased fuel loads and fire severity.
The forest density is a serious fire danger, as the trees are thin and unhealthy. Many small trees lead to high-intensity fires where, by contrast, forests with fewer and larger trees have low-intensity fires. Additionally, there is not enough water to support all the trees—which also makes them more susceptible to disease, and dead trees burn more easily than healthy ones.
The water issue is dangerous for more than just the trees’ health and fire prevention. With the current forest density, the trees are sucking up the limited water supply and threatening the local communities who depend on the near-surface aquifer.
The nearby forests of the Mescalero Tribe provide a case study on forest management. Rather than following USFS policy, they manage for the health of the forest and practice uneven age management—meaning they log selectively. When there are forest fires—a reality in the arid mountains of the Southwest—in the Lincoln National Forest, the fires quickly become wild, threatening people, livestock, structures, and livelihoods. When the same fire rushes on to Mescalero lands, due to the healthier trees and less density, it lays down and becomes a more manageable surface fire. An added bonus: their forests have several spotted owl protected activity centers.
Keeping the forest healthy through thinning costs about $600 per acre, but fighting a forest fire can cost nearly four times more. Additionally, rather than going up in smoke, thinned material can be used for wood products and biofuels. The thinning helps the watershed store more water and limits erosion, which fills up reservoirs and streams with silt from the flash floods on mountains with no vegetation to hold the water back. It also helps maintain the mountain ecosystem and allows the snow to melt and filter into the ground water rather than evaporating from the branches, reduces structure damage and insurance issues, and maintains the recreation economy.
So, why has the USFS fought the citizens of Otero County, who want what is best for their community? Why were Congressman Steve Pearce and county commissioners threated with incarceration if they cut the tress as planned? Like “Why is the EPA fighting farmers?” answers to these questions remain left to our imagination.
What we do know is that on Saturday, September 17, the Otero Country Tree Party put the Forest Service on notice. They did not ask permission; they realigned the government and took back their right to manage the lands owned by the state and county. The 1976 Federal Land Policy and Management Act requires that the lands be managed in coordination with the state and local governments and New Mexico state law gives local sovereignty over public lands.
New Mexico Governor Susana Martinez supports the county’s efforts but could not attend because of the state’s special legislative session going on at the same time. A letter from Lt. Governor John Sanchez was read at the rally before the tree cutting ceremony.
The Sheriff’s Department had an obvious presence with a SWAT vehicle and riot gear. But the only trouble was a lone environmentalist holding up a sign in opposition of the tree cutting efforts.
While the “Tree Party” on Saturday was largely symbolic, it let the Forest Service know the County is serious. If the Forest Service doesn’t follow through with the Emergency Forest Management Plan the County has drawn up, the County will have no choice but to move forward on its own. The actions taken by the Otero County Commissioners are being watched closely by the National Association of Counties.
The Otero Country Tree Party has worked to stay within the law and asked people to leave their pitchforks and chainsaws at home. The trees were cut by professionals, who safely dropped them, as a cheering public looked on. Congressman Steve Pearce cut the first tree under the direct supervision of the professionals. The Tree Party supporters then helped clean up—doing what the USFS should be doing.
The Otero County Commissioners believe that in addition to saving lives and property through reducing the fire danger, their Emergency Forest Management Plan can provide as many as 1,000 jobs for the local communities. Chairman Rardin said: “We are just trying to fix our problem. This is what America wants.”
The Otero County Tree Party is a movement that could change the nation as other counties realign the government by putting them back where they belong.