JEMEZ PUEBLO – Jemez Pueblo Gov. Paul Chinana remembers the day in 2000 the Cerro Grande Fire started. He was on his way home from work at Los Alamos National Laboratory.
“I was going through the mountains when the wind started blowing,” he said, recounting that he saw a thin layer of smoke from what was supposed to be a “controlled burn” near the rim of Valles Caldera. “The next morning, it was a lot worse.”
The burn got out of control and became one of the most devastating fires in state history. Nearly 48,000 acres of forest burned, close to 400 families lost their homes and, when the smoke cleared, total damages were estimated at $1 billion.
It could have been worse. The fire threatened LANL, the nuclear weapons laboratory, where hazardous materials and volatile chemicals are housed.
“It was kinda scary,” he said.
The governor recalled that fateful day while at a ribbon-cutting ceremony for Walatowa Timber Industries’ new pellet plant on Wednesday. In a way, the tiny pellets used primarily as heating fuel play a small role in preventing another catastrophic fire in the Jemez Mountains. They come from trees harvested to thin the Santa Fe National Forest.
The pellets also play a bigger role in creating economic development opportunities on the pueblo and providing New Mexicans with a home-grown product that should fill a niche in the marketplace.
“New Mexico is one of the largest users of pellets, but the majority are imported from out of state,” says Terry Conley, whose lumber business, TC Company, entered into a partnership with Jemez Pueblo to form Walatowa Timber Industries in 2012.
Since then, the processing plant has made rough-sawn beams, vigas, latillas and corbels sold to builders, as well as by-products like landscaping mulch, animal bedding and firewood.
The new pellet plant represents growth for the business, which Conley says has opportunities to grow even more. “There’s room for easily 20 or 30 more employees if this thing can materialize and become a success,” he said.
That’s good for the business – he joked that the plant is so close to the residential area of the pueblo that his workers can walk to work and can’t call in with the excuse their car broke down – and good for the employees because they don’t have to search for jobs in Albuquerque or elsewhere and can spend more time with their families.
Walatowa Timber has more than a dozen employees now, most of them tribal members. That was the idea when the Jemez Community Development Corp. entered into the agreement with TC Company to form Walatowa Timber.
Charlotte Romero, who chairs the volunteer board that oversees the pueblo’s economic development efforts, said its mission is “to provide job opportunities on the pueblo to create a sustainable community.”
“This is the beginning of a great adventure for us,” Romero said at the ribbon-cutting ceremony, acknowledging the men employed by the plant. “We look to these gentlemen who are learning a great deal at the sawmill and then passing that (knowledge) on, so this is a new enterprise that goes on into future generations.”
Forest Service role
The pueblo and Conley aren’t the only partners in the endeavor. The U.S. Forest Service plays a critical role in providing the material used in the operation.
James Melones, supervisor at Santa Fe National Forest, said the Southwest Jemez Mountains Collaborative Forest Restoration Project is part of a national forest restoration effort that is just getting ramped up.
Simply, the idea is to thin the forests by removing the density of trees in certain areas. That removes much of the fuel that could feed a catastrophic fire and virtually eliminates the chances of “crowning,” fire that burns in the tree canopies and can spread easily. Removing the fuel creates conditions for low-intensity fires that consume fuel at ground level.
“We’ve all seen the impacts of wildfires,” Melones said. “We’re lucky to have the best knowledge about what these forests should look like, strongly grounded in science. We know very clearly what the forest would look like with the exclusion of fire.”
It’s not just the fire that does damage, he said. The aftereffects are also devastating.
“We’ve also seen the post-fire impacts with the flooding at Santa Clara and Cochiti pueblos after the Los Conchas Fire,” he said. That fire burned 234 square miles of northern New Mexico in 2011.
About 250,000 acres of land in the National Forest, on the Valles Caldera National Preserve and Jemez Pueblo have been set aside for harvesting ponderosa pine and dry mixed conifer.
Walter Dunn, program manager for the forest restoration project, said that since 2001, a series of grants totalling about $1.5 million has been put toward the effort. The last grant from 2016 provided the $250,000 needed to build the pellet plant and use the harvested trees.
The timber industry’s effort has support from varying viewpoints. The Nature Conservancy has endorsed it. “The dire need to restore overgrown forests, especially in the upper Rio Grande, provides an opportunity to bring economic base jobs to rural parts of New Mexico where unemployment is several points higher than in urban areas,” Laura McCarthy, the environmental group’s associate state director, wrote in a Journal guest column.
Conley’s family has been in the lumber industry for going on five generations. He said his grandfather started hauling lumber in Chama in 1929, and the family still owns Conley’s Lumber Mill in Española.
The lumber industry pretty much left northern New Mexico in the 1990s due to laws intended to protect the environment and wildlife, he said. It still hasn’t come all the way back.
“I was the only bidder on this project,” he said of the agreement that formed Walatowa Timber. “Corporate America wasn’t interested in it, because the profit margins weren’t there. Corporations just look at the bottom line … . For me, the real profit is putting people to work here and getting the forest in a condition where you’re not looking at burn scars. And if I make a little money, I’ll be happy with it.”
Conley has already seen a change in market conditions. He said that, five years ago, 30 percent of his company’s business was wood products used in building, while 70 percent came from wood by-products, like wood chips for playground areas and animal bedding. The ratio has now been reversed, he said.
Conley invested a lot of his own money. He bought much of the pellet milling equipment from an operation in Colorado that closed down. Along with it, he hired Cutty Donovan, who was running that operation.
Donovan led a tour of the facility on Wednesday, showing visitors how 60-foot logs are made into 2-inch pellets.
The logs are loaded on to a conveyor that feeds them into a chipper. The wood chips are deposited into a bin that can hold up to 20 tons worth. The chips are then fed into a hammer mill that reduces them essentially to sawdust.
“That takes the chips to a size we need to make pellets,” Donovan said.
A cyclone transfers the product to another bin, then feeds them into the pellet machine, which heats the wood and forms it into pellets. He said the sap is what bonds it together to make the pellets. “We don’t add anything but steam,” he said.
After the pellets cool to room temperature, they go through another machine that funnels them into plastic bags that are then sealed and ready to be sold to wholesalers or directly to retail stores.
“It’s nice to see it all come together,” Donovan said of the operation, which would be capable of making 60 tons of pellets a day if it ran around the clock.
All sides seem to agree that Conley might make a little money. So might the pueblo, which is also creating jobs for tribal members. Products are being made locally that will be used by local people to heat their homes at a relatively low price. And the U.S. Forest Service is happy that the forests are being thinned to reduce fuel that could lead to catastrophic fires.
Not only that, due to their high burn efficiency and density, pellets produce much lower particulate emissions than firewood or petroleum fuels.
“Another big thing for us is that the forest’s health is linked to the watershed and the wildlife,” said Melonas. “What we’re attempting to do is to get the forest back to its natural condition within the landscape.”
That’s important to the Jemez people, too.
“The Native American concept is to take care of Mother Nature,” said Gov. Chinana, whose pueblo’s traditional name is Walatowa. “We need to take care of her for us to survive and for wildlife to survive. We breathe the same air and we drink the same water. We consume all that together.”