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Face to face with Laura McCarthy: Heading off wildfires

Copyright © 2018 Albuquerque Journal

Editor’s Note: A liberal arts college graduate turned forest ranger, Laura McCarthy is heading up a race against time to protect New Mexico’s waters from deadly wildfires. She talked about the Rio Grande Water Fund project in a recent interview.

July 2018 was hot and dry when lightning sparked the Venado fire in the Jemez.

As always in New Mexico, foresters scanned the horizon looking for the telltale soaring plume that comes with extreme fire behavior, such as the Las Conchas fire in 2011 that burned 44,000 acres in its first 13 hours and charred more than 150,000 acres – leaving a burned-out moonscape that flushed untold amounts of ash and sludge into the watershed when heavy rains came.

That didn’t happen with the Venado fire.

After racing across the treetops, the fire – almost miraculously – dropped to the ground and was eventually limited to a few thousand acres.

But nothing about it was miraculous. It was science-based strategic planning and hard work.

Larry Martinez of the National Forest Service lights a prescribed burn in the Santa Fe watershed in September 2015. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

The Venado fire, which experts said could have easily grown to 40,000 acres, hit an area of the forest that had recently been thinned in one of the projects of the Rio Grande Water Restoration Fund.

The same thing happened with the Cajete fire in 2017, ignited by a campfire that hadn’t been extinguished.

And with the David Canyon fire in June 2018. It also hit an area where the forest had been thinned and overgrown brush removed. It burned just 15 acres.

At a time when the nation’s attention has been riveted on the devastating fires in California and the heated finger-pointing about its overgrown brush and forest, a unique public-private partnership in New Mexico has been on the ground working to reduce the danger from explosive wildfires and, in the process, protecting one of our most precious and scarce resources: water.

The primary mover behind this effort, which has so far resulted in 108,000 acres of forest treated with thinning, controlled burns and managed natural fires at a cost of $44.5 million?

Meet Laura McCarthy.

Laura McCarthy, associate state director of the Nature Conservancy New Mexico field office and managing director of the Rio Grande Water Fund, stands on a bank of the Rio Grande in Albuquerque. She is a primary mover of a public-private partnership to protect water resources and reduce the danger from explosive wildfires. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

McCarthy, who grew up in Washington, D.C., and graduated from a liberal arts college in Maine before choosing a career that led her to sleeping in tents in the forest and even serving as a fire lookout, is the associate state director of the Nature Conservancy’s New Mexico field office and managing director of the Rio Grande Water Fund.

Much work is yet to be done to mitigate the significant threat of devastating fires that could impact the state’s water resources. Another 300,000 acres is in the Rio Grande Water Fund’s planning pipeline, with estimates that New Mexico has 1.7 million acres of forest in which proactive management would make a difference.

There are plenty of economic and bureaucratic hurdles.

But also progress – and momentum.

“I’m really grateful that in New Mexico we have found a way to proactively scale up and not wait for the feds to bail us out,” McCarthy said. “This public-private partnership is a way New Mexicans are stepping up and saying this problem affects our water supply throughout the Rio Grande Valley, and we need to take matters into our own hands and demand a proactive solution – not where we say others should do something, but one where we all step up and pitch in.”

LEFT: A 2018 photo shows an area of forest upstream from the diversion dam that collects water from the Navajo River for the San Juan-Chama Project. RIGHT: The same area after it was thinned. (Courtesy of the Rio Grande Water Fund)

McCarthy and her team have assembled an impressive group of about 70 businesses and government agencies in their race to head off devastating wildfires and their horrific impact on our water.

Signatories to the organization’s charter range from government agencies, like the Forest Service, State Land Office and the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority, to companies like Presbyterian, PNM and General Mills.

McCarthy says that about $4.55 million in private donations have been used to leverage $40 million in public funding. Along the way, the project has created an estimated 235 forestry jobs and an estimated $23 million to $36 million in economic output.

But it’s hard to put a monetary value on the real goal of the project, which is to prevent catastrophe.

McCarthy says one of the four priority areas identified by the project for forest thinning is in the San Juan-Chama watershed, given its importance to Albuquerque’s drinking water supply.

“I would read about the San Juan-Chama Water Project in the paper, but I had no idea we were banking our water supply on essentially two modest-sized watersheds that if they were to burn in the way that Las Conchas burned would set us back for 50 years,” she said. “That was a big awakening.”

Business buy-in

Laura McCarthy walks through the Rio Grande bosque in Albuquerque. McCarthy and her team have assembled a group of about 70 businesses and government agencies in their race to head off devastating wildfires and their disastrous impact on our water. (Greg Sorber/Albuquerque Journal)

McCarthy’s work on the Rio Grande Water Fund project dates back to 2012.

“We had a concept – but no staff working on it – and I met with a lot of people and asked what they thought. Is it viable? Could we pull something like this off? The thing about the concept was that it was going to be a bigger scale than ever tried before and was going to work across sectors, bringing water people, forest people and the private sector all together.

“The feedback was pretty positive. I remember distinctly that one of our board members helped get an invitation for us to present to a committee of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce in December 2012 that (Albuquerque architect) Dale Dekker chaired. I had a decent set of slides explaining the problem, but I was pretty sure the business community was going to hate this.

“That wasn’t their reaction. Dale, in particular, saw the video of the debris flow and said, ‘That’s like a tsunami right here in our own state and we should do something about this.’

“And that was the transition point because we knew we had buy-in. We spent a year and a half with working groups developing what we call a comprehensive plan for wildlife and water source protection. It was comprehensive because we said, ‘let’s take all the existing plans and look at them together and kind of roll them up into one coordinated action.’ ”

McCarthy said the Nature Conservancy had strong analysis capacity and geographic information systems that were used in identifying the target areas – a huge challenge given that forest lands cross various state, federal and tribal boundaries with private property owners mixed in.

“We identified four priority geographies that were important from a water supply perspective and that had a high probability of uncharacteristically severe wildfire.”

Note: Experts say the runoff from an area like that devastated by Las Conchas is up to 100 times greater than runoff from an unburned forest that receives similar rainfall.

“We identified the San Juan-Chama as No. 1, followed by the west slope of the Sangre de Cristos, the East Mountains and the Jemez. Within each of those we have collaborative groups working at various scales. We figure we have 600,000 acres to restore so we’re 20 percent there. We’ve made a dent.”

Seeds planted

After graduating cum laude from Bowdoin College with a bachelor of arts in government and legal affairs, McCarthy landed a job as a “forestry technician” in the Idaho Panhandle National Forest, taking inventory of what was on the ground.

Laura McCarthy, right, and Terry Johnson in 1985 pause while taking tree measurements for the U.S. Forest Service in the Idaho Panhandle National Forest. (Courtesy of Laura McCarthy)

“We would record the kinds of trees, how tall they were, how big around and what was growing in the understory. All that was used by professional staff to make decisions about things like logging.

“I was in Idaho for three years, and it turned out I really loved it.”

She recalls that on her first day she was handed a device used to bore into trees to extract tree ring samples and had no idea what it was.

“I was clueless.”

But not clueless for long. Her resume also includes stints as a wildland firefighter in the West and forest ranger in Vermont, along with a master of forestry degree from Yale University in 1988.

She came to the Southwest in 1996.

“I had met my husband, Patrick, and he was working for the Nature Conservancy and wanted to move to the Southwest to be closer to his family.”

They have two children and share a love for the outdoors. They went camping for three days after the traditional Thanksgiving dinner.

Working in D.C.

Some of McCarthy’s most important work on forests was done in Washington, D.C., when she was the Nature Conservancy’s senior policy adviser for fire and forest restoration.

“I started in 2005 and my boss was in Arlington, Va., and that worked well because those were the years Pete (Domenici, R-N.M.) and Jeff (Bingaman, D-N.M.) were trading off chairmanship of Natural Resources, and that was the committee I needed to be working with. So it was an asset to be a New Mexican doing that job.”

She had high praise for both former senators, as well as current office holders, Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich.

Jim Mullane, then-owner of Dixon’s Apple Orchard, walks past the farm’s collapsed workshop, the result of flooding that came in August 2011 after the Las Conchas Fire. (Pat Vasquez-Cunningham/Albuquerque Journal)

She said the water fund project was in response to legislation sponsored by Bingaman to address the fire threat issue. The bill, she said, “sort of fixed it but not well enough. And that led me to try this public-private partnership.”

The Forest Service, she said, had seen its budget decimated by fighting increasingly hot and catastrophic wildfires. Unlike other disasters where Congress appropriates special funding – for a hurricane, for example – the Forest Service had to absorb those costs from its budget. That didn’t leave much for proactive forest management like that undertaken by the Rio Grande Water Fund.

Congress has finally made a fix, but it doesn’t take effect until next year.

Working the political system has been crucial, and McCarthy has the advantage of having worked in the system.

“There are lots of hoops to jump through dealing with the Forest Service, but myself and our forest program director here are both former Forest Service employees and I think that has allowed us to be effective because we can walk a mile in their shoes. We know when to cut them slack and when to push, and I think they view us as a valued partner.

“I think the Forest Service has evolved a lot. I think the leadership in the Southwest Region is really strong, and they really want to see forest restored. That doesn’t mean there aren’t dozens and dozens of barriers to work through, including many policies that are old and were developed in a different era.

“The Nature Conservancy approach is that we work with anybody; we meet them where they are, and we do our best to get to solutions.”

Major overgrowth

Years of fire suppression, coupled with a warmer climate (in particular, temperatures are noticeably hotter in the Jemez) have left the area with a huge potential for devastating fires, McCarthy says. And more urban interface with the forest, as seen recently in California, is another problem.

McCarthy says ponderosa pine forests had a general average of 80 trees an acre back when fires were frequent.

“Now, we often have 1,000 or even 2,000 trees per acre. So that’s the magnitude of the problem we’re talking about when we talk about the overgrown forest.”

Not only does it create a perfect setting for explosive wildfire and resulting damage to watershed, McCarthy says the overgrown forest “is terrible for wildlife. There is no food supply. And it sets up conflict between wildlife and livestock because there’s not enough grass for the elk and cows and they’re all forced into meadows that are sensitive wetlands. If there was grass growing between the trees – at 80 trees an acre – then we wouldn’t have as pronounced conflicts between humans and wildlife.”

As for those who oppose tree cutting at all, she says they are “coming from their values, but not from a place that’s grounded in 80 years of science.”

Meanwhile, immediate challenges include how to scale up the work and make operations more efficient on all levels, perhaps managing 30 to 40 projects at once.

One challenge is how to train workers, then keep them when the year for “field work” is often out of sync with government fiscal years.

“We need to be able to keep people working year round and need to improve processes (like environmental studies) that can slow a project.”

Market forces

Nature Conservancy folks are sometimes referred to as the “conservative environmentalists” – a term McCarthy embraces.

The organization used to raise money to buy and protect select properties, but eventually realized “the scale of the processes that drive ecological change are bigger than any one ownership.”

Hence, the move toward the kind of partnership effort being undertaken here.

She said of one of the organization’s founding values is to work with the private sector and it believes market forces are the way to bring about conservation and change.

“I’m not saying there is no role for regulation, but the pathway to significant change is through market forces.”

It’s about finding the “common ground between nature conservation and human well-being.”

The Rio Grande Water Fund’s private sector investors, she says, have an interest in reliable water and a sustainable supply chain “and that means they need partnerships with those who are working on conservation, not just for nature’s sake but also integrating human users of nature in a sustainable way.”

But it is a race against time. It will soon be winter in New Mexico and with luck the state will see a good snowpack.

However, the next fire season will be back in the blink of an eye. While McCarthy and her partners have made significant progress, they are playing a high stakes game of chess with nature – trying to target key watershed areas and treat them before they can explode into devastating fires like Las Conchas.