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Editorial: Forest work hedges against climate-change damage

There is sure to be plenty of talk about climate change and what New Mexico can do about lowering carbon emissions when the new governor and legislators take office Jan. 1.

It’s a timely and important topic, especially in light of a new federal report that talks about the costs in 2050 of a warming planet. There will be any number of grandiose, but certainly difficult or perhaps unworkable, long-term solutions put on the table in Santa Fe. But getting buy-in when sacrifice is required isn’t easy and there are no free rides. For example, take note of the huge riots in France over the carbon reduction fuel tax increases.

As it grapples with the issue, our political leadership would do well to look at an environmental project that is already paying dividends and that with strong support can play an even bigger role in protecting our state’s many forest and water resources in the near future.

The Rio Grande Water Fund is a public/private partnership with a goal of generating sustainable funding for a 20-year program to restore 600,000 acres of forests in New Mexico that are at risk of extreme fire – like the explosive Las Conchas Fire that devastated the area around the Dixon apple orchards in the Jemez in 2011. Protecting forests from explosive wildfire also means protecting New Mexico’s water supply from devastating runoff when monsoon rains hit the burned-out landscape left behind.

The organization’s annual report says the Water Fund provides resources for large-scale forest and watershed restoration treatments – thinning overgrown forests, managing fire, and restoring wetlands and streams.

So far, the project headed by Laura McCarthy of the Nature Conservancy has treated 100,000 acres at a cost of $45 million, with 300,000 more acres in the planning pipeline. It has identified four key watersheds, with the San Juan Chama watershed that supplies Albuquerque’s drinking water as Priority One.

“I would read about the San Juan-Chama Water project, 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 Las Conchas burned would set us back 50 years,” she says.

Other priority areas are the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, the Jemez and the Sandias.

About 70 businesses, ranging from Public Service Company of New Mexico to General Mills to Presbyterian, are signatories to the organization’s charter, along with environmental groups, such as the Sierra Club, and government agencies, including the Forest Service and the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority.

When Gov.-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham and the Democrat-controlled Legislature take up climate-related issues, they would be wise to look at this project. Perhaps even review the video of the Las Conchas Fire and resulting runoff. Maybe even take a tour to see first-hand the difference between treated forest and untreated forest that is choked with up to 2,000 trees per acre after decades of misguided fire suppression and reluctance to cut anything down. (Note: the historic average for a Ponderosa pine forest is 80 trees per acre.) These overgrown areas are not only a tinder box waiting to explode, but also are bad for wildlife because there is no grass. This forces wildlife and livestock into sensitive wetlands.

There is no question we are in a warming climate, and there is sure to be debate around how we should address that. But getting behind a project like the Rio Grande Water Fund that is seeking to head off catastrophe and paying clear environmental dividends should be a no-brainer.

This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned as it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than the writers.