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State should emulate forest protection fund

Drought and wildfires are undoubtedly among the biggest threats to New Mexico’s forests and water resources, but another culprit is rearing its head: funding for forest and watershed restoration.

The demand is there. Business leaders, homeowners, lawmakers, Republicans and Democrats, conservationists and environmentalists – virtually everyone wants to protect our magnificent forests, bucolic lakes and rivers, and clean public drinking water. These are core interests that are vital to public health, tourism, jobs, fish and wildlife and the diverse landscapes that make New Mexico a great place to live and a popular destination for tourists.

That’s why almost three years ago, New Mexico’s Legislature expanded the Forest Land Protection Revolving Fund as the first step in creating a dedicated source of revenue to pay for forest and watershed management projects – the kind of restoration projects that would help make New Mexico’s forests healthier and less prone to mega-wildfires.

The problem is, since the revolving fund was authorized for forest restoration in March 2016, no money has been put into it. And it’s time for that to change. Every $1 of state funds invested in forest conservation leverages at least $3 in additional federal, local and private support. And every $1 million spent on restoration creates an average of 22 jobs. That’s a great bargain.

The private sector is willing to do its share. We recognize that forests across the state are unhealthy and vulnerable to catastrophic wildfires that burn homes and businesses, destroy wildlife habitat, spoil water supplies and create personal hardship. And we are tackling the problem with collaboration.

The Nature Conservancy established the Rio Grande Water Fund in 2014 to improve the health of our forests and secure water for 1 million people – half the state’s population. Using the best science and a collaborative process, the fund – which today is supported by the Taos Ski Valley, the Taos Ski Valley Foundation and about 70 other partners – is embarking on a 20-year project to improve the health of 600,000 acres of at-risk forests.

Since its launch, the Rio Grande Water Fund has treated 108,000 acres through thinning, controlled burning and managed natural fires. This year, it has restored 33,000 acres — a 1,000 percent increase over the 3,000 acres restored the year before the fund was launched.

Forest conservation work is a major factor in reducing the risk of wildfires, keeping our water resources clean and secure, protecting wildlife habitat and our state and national park lands, and supporting New Mexico’s tourism industry. The Rio Grande Water Fund is also a major boost to local economies, supporting 235 jobs.

The fund and its partners have 300,000 acres in the restoration pipeline, including thinning along Highway 150 to the Taos Ski Valley, forest restoration along the Sandia Crest Road and in the Jemez Mountains, and thinning of forests owned by El Salto Land Association that will protect the community’s natural assets and contribute to large-scale fire management across New Mexico.

The Rio Grande Water Fund is a model that can be adopted by the Forest Land Protection Revolving Fund, which has almost identical but more wide-ranging goals and can call on many of the same private partners to help.

The key to success for the revolving fund is consistent, sustained funding. A steady stream of state funding is the sort of dedication that federal officials from the Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Forest Service want to see. They have made clear that states investing their own money on forest restoration will be at the top of the list for matching federal funds.

Throughout her time in Congress, Gov.-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham was a reliable and vocal proponent for forest and water resources. Lujan Grisham worked with members of both parties to expedite the review and approval of new and innovative conservation and water management technologies, co-sponsored legislation to end “fire borrowing” and fought for increased resources for environmental clearances, thinning contracts, controlled burns and other Forest Service management activities. We look forward to working closely with Gov.-elect Lujan Grisham on steady funding for the revolving fund once she is sworn into office.

In allowing the revolving fund to be used for forest and watershed management, state lawmakers showed their hearts are in the right place. The math on job creation and leveraged support from private and federal sources is compelling. The benefits of these investments for public health and the environment are undeniable.

It’s time for state lawmakers to pledge a consistent, sustained level of funding for the Forest Land Protection Revolving Fund. It’s a necessary investment in our state’s natural resources and its future.

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