New Mexico is on high alert for fire danger, and already more than 100 unplanned fires have started in the state – all signs the 2018 fire season is heating up.
Dangerous and damaging fires are becoming all-too-common in our changing climate, and this year’s extreme drought has fire managers worried.
It takes money and good science to reduce the risk of wildfire to people and the lands that provide our water, habitat for wildlife and outdoor recreation.
But the good news is that Congress, the New Mexico Legislature and Gov. Susana Martinez have taken positive steps to accelerate thinning and removing overgrown brush and trees that act as fuel for future fires.
Last month Congress passed the Fiscal Year 2018 Omnibus Spending Bill, which is great news for national forests in New Mexico and nationwide.
The biggest win is that after a decade of work and many false starts, Congress agreed to a fire-funding fix that will cover the cost of fighting wildfire without robbing the USDA Forest Service’s program budgets.
For too long, increasing wildfire suppression costs have eroded non-fire programs in our land management agencies. That happened both on the front end when deciding allocations, and on the back end by leaving less for non-fire programs when agencies are forced to transfer funds as allocated fire funding levels are depleted.
The situation had gone from bad to worse: The costs of fighting U.S. wildfires topped $2 billion in 2017, breaking all previous records, and Forest Service spending on fire suppression in recent years has gone from 15 percent of the budget to 55 percent.
Many thanks to New Mexico Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich for their support of this bill, and to the entire Congressional delegation for sustained advocacy on behalf of New Mexico forests.
On a bipartisan basis, New Mexico legislators have also shown consistent support for restoring headwater forests, protecting our critical water sources and ensuring that residents have access to firewood and other wood products.
In 2016 the administration proposed, and the Legislature unanimously endorsed, an amendment to the Forest Land Protection Revolving Fund to authorize forest and watershed restoration.
This year, the Legislature made a general fund appropriation of $100,000. It’s a critical beginning and a wise investment that will be leveraged with federal funding several times over. And when Gov. Martinez approved the state’s budget for fiscal 2019, she approved this funding for forest and watershed restoration.
Spurring this political momentum is a New Mexico coalition of non-profit, governmental and business organizations working diligently to protect the forests that we depend on. As part of The Nature Conservancy’s Rio Grande Water Fund, more than 60 agencies, businesses and organizations have joined together to use the best available science to protect water and forests for the 1 million people in central and northern New Mexico with a goal of restoring 600,000 acres in 20 years. The fund has already restored 70,000 acres and created more than 100 jobs since 2014. And, this kind of collaborative work is starting in other parts of the state as well, through coalitions working with the Lincoln and Gila National Forests.
The benefits of these policies and on-the-ground work are numerous: reduction of catastrophic fire; improved watershed health and water quality; creation of jobs; reduction of health impacts; protection of wildlife, and sustained and increased outdoor tourism.
This spring and summer, as we continue to share our concerns about drought and fire, let’s continue to support these kinds of collaborative efforts that help protect the lands and waters of New Mexico for nature and people.