Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Thursday’s announcement that the U.S. Forest Service was suspending the sale of fuel wood permits in New Mexico’s national forests seems to have set off a firestorm.
In addition, other timber management activities, including prescribed burns intended to reduce the threat of wildfires, have been suspended, according to a news release.
The suspension is the result of a court order by a federal judge in Arizona that mandates that “USFS timber management actions in Region 3 national forests must cease pending formal consultation.”
Timber management activities include timber sales, forest thinning and restoration operations, and prescribed burns.
The fuel wood permit sale suspension affects the five national forests in New Mexico – Carson, Cibola, Gila, Lincoln and Santa Fe – as well as Tonto National Forest, northeast of Phoenix.
The order, from Senior U.S. District Judge Raner C. Collins of the Arizona District, stems from a lawsuit filed this month by WildEarth Guardians against the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over its alleged failure to protect the Mexican spotted owl, listed as threatened under the Endangered Species Act. The lawsuit contends that Fish and Wildlife and the Forest Service haven’t done enough to monitor the owl populations.
“This failure to monitor population not only stifles delisting, but fundamentally hampers the ability to assess recovery,” the lawsuit says. “Defendants have had over 20 years to find a workable way to monitor (the Mexican spotted owl) occupancy to measure progress towards delisting. Budget complications are no excuse.”
A Forest Service spokesman said Thursday that the agency has submitted a second filing seeking clarification on the scope of the injunction, asking if the injunction would include such things as the cutting of already dead or downed trees.
On Thursday, WildEarth Guardians asked the court to modify the tree-cutting ban to exclude firewood permits for personal use. The Forest Service said it would agree.
It’s unclear when the judge will rule on the motion.
There are 8,938 active fuel wood permits issued across the six national forests affected by the injunction, according to the Forest Service. Five other national forests in Arizona are not affected by the injunction because those forests have already completed forest plans that include biological opinions on the Mexican spotted owl.
Collecting firewood is a time-honored tradition in New Mexico, where many rural families for generations have relied on burning wood to heat their homes.
Last week, hours after the Santa Fe National Forest issued a news release describing planned prescribed burns in the Santa Fe watershed, SFNF sent out notice that the burns had been postponed without explaining the reason. The action taken by the Forest Service to suspend fuel wood permit sales didn’t come until after the agency sought clarification on the judge’s ruling last week.
Local residents said the ruling will likely harm those who sell firewood and use it to heat their homes in the winter.
At a pullout area in Santa Fe off Old Las Vegas Highway, wood sellers were also concerned about how the suspension would affect them and their customers.
“It’ll be hard on the vendors and hard on the people that burn wood,” said one man who declined to give his name. “It’s the loggers that are cutting the trees down. We’re just the small guys that get the permits.”
“We’re trying to make a living day by day,” said another wood seller, adding that he thinks it’ll cost more to buy fuel wood in the future due to supply and demand. “Prices will go up for people buying the wood. Private landowners charge a lot more than the (Forest Service).”
Oliver Arp, who owns Veterans Firewood in Albuquerque, called the injunction a “scary situation.”
“My delivery guy and cutter informed me yesterday that they were near Grants when they were stopped by a forester and told that even if they had a permit, they couldn’t cut wood,” he said.
Arp then called the national forest office in Santa Fe to ask when the timber management injunction would end.
“They said it could take until the end of this year or longer,” Arp said. “This will definitely affect a lot of people. My customers who live in rural areas and in the East Mountains rely on firewood to heat their homes. They don’t have the resources to just turn on a switch for heat.”
Arp edited his advertising to inform his customers that he has a limited amount of firewood and is not doing large sales during the injunction.
Gerald Gutierrez, who sells firewood in the East Mountains, said he was told that the injunction could take anywhere from six months to a year to be resolved.
“This will definitely affect people trying to keep warm this winter,” he said. “It could really increase the prices of firewood because people can’t cut any more.”
Gutierrez said he doesn’t think a halt of all timber management activities is the best way to protect habitat for the Mexican spotted owl.
“The Forest Service knows what they’re doing,” he said. “They know where the owls live. They have to thin overgrown areas to prevent fire danger.”
A release from the New Mexico state Bureau of Land Management office said the “demand for fuel wood from BLM land has increased” because of the injunction on forest land. Permits for BLM fuel wood can be purchased online or in person at field offices.
Stewart Rooks, president of the Grant County Farm and Livestock Bureau, said in a Facebook post that the lawsuit “struck another blow against hard-working rural New Mexicans.”
“This continuing vendetta by the WildEarth Guardians is just another example of how big-city environmentalists are trying to depopulate rural America,” the post from Rooks reads. “Their lawsuits have decimated our timber mills and the good jobs that go with them.”
John Horning, executive director of WildEarth Guardians, said the blame falls on the Fish and Wildlife Service, which failed to monitor the owl’s population, and the Forest Service.
“I think the Forest Service is trying to inflict as much pain as possible on rural communities by needlessly interpreting this injunction in a way that incites people,” he said, adding that personal firewood use should not have been included in the injunction. “The bottom line here is what they are doing now by over-broadly interpreting the injunction is irresponsible, as was the illegal behavior that got us here in the first place.”
He called the Forest Service’s response “petty and vindictive.”
“I care deeply about people, about the forest, about the Mexican spotted owl, and I resent that this agency’s failure and irresponsible politicizing of this has confused and scared people needlessly,” he said.
A spokesman for Forest Service’s Southwestern Region said the Forest Service had no choice but to suspend fuel wood sales, given the court’s ruling.
“The injunction states that we are to suspend timber management activities in Region 3,” said Shayne Martin, adding that timber management activities by definition include the collection of fuel wood. “We don’t have a lot of flexibility or leeway, to be frank.”
The suspension of timber management activities could also affect the capital Christmas tree, which this year is to be selected from the Carson National Forest.
“There’s a lot of activity involving the capital Christmas tree. It’s not just one tree,” Martin said, adding that it is one of the things about which the Forest Service is seeking clarification.
The Forest Service’s announcement prompted two Republican state legislators to criticize the judge’s ruling as “judicial overreach.”
“Many of our rural families depend on fuel wood to heat their homes throughout the fall, winter, and spring months. Those families and the businesses that provide fuel for heating already adhere to rules and regulations designed to manage the habitat,” said the statement by state Reps. Gail Armstrong of Magdalena and Rebecca Dow of Truth or Consequences. “Those families and the businesses that provide fuel for heating already adhere to rules and regulations designed to manage the habitat. The only ones served by these lawsuits pushed by radical environmental groups are lawyers.”
The representatives say that extreme environmental policies jeopardize all wildlife habitat by leaving forests vulnerable to forest fire and insect infestation.
“We can develop reasonable solutions that preserve our way of life and maintain the health of our landscapes if we work together to find a better way,” their statement says.
One Democrat also chimed in. Rep. Joseph Sanchez of Alcalde called for a quick resolution in the matter.
“It is outrageous that New Mexicans may need to go to Colorado to get firewood,” he said in a statement. “At a minimum we need to have an exception granted for personal firewood … This is an essential time for many in rural New Mexico to gather firewood for heating and cooking. This moratorium on permits could not have come at a worse time. It will be devastating to those who depend on this vital resource for basic survival during the winter.”
Eytan Krasilovsky, a spokesman for the Greater Santa Fe Watershed Coalition, which lists as its partners the Forest Stewards Guild, The Nature Conservancy, the Santa Fe Watershed Association, as well as governmental entities like Tesuque Pueblo, the city of Santa Fe’s fire department and water division and the Forest Service’s Region 3, said he hopes a quick solution can be found.
“It’s important that it gets resolved swiftly both for the benefit of the owl and for the benefit of other resource needs on Forest Service land,” he said, adding that that includes wildlife, the forests’ health, people that work in forest restoration and people who collect firewood from national forest lands. “Particularly in New Mexico, where firewood is an important source of heating energy.”
Krasilovsky said he’s hopeful that the order can be revised to only include areas where spotted owl habitat can be found.
The Associated Press contributed to this report