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Prescribed burning legislation advances in House

The Medio Fire burned 4,000 acres in August and September, and threatened Ski Santa Fe and watersheds in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. State officials say prescribed burning the year before helped protect the ski basin. (Eddie Moore/Albuquerque Journal)

SANTA FE — A bipartisan proposal to encourage prescribed burning on private land is headed to the House floor without a dissenting vote.

The legislation, House Bill 57, is intended to reduce the threat and severity of wildfires by removing barriers that keep private landowners from conducting prescribed burns.

It passed the House Judiciary Committee on an 11-0 vote Monday, sending it to the full chamber for consideration. The House Energy and Natural Resources Committee endorsed the bill unanimously last week.

Supporters say prescribed burning can help clear out grass, shrubs and trees that fuel high-severity wildfires.

State Forester Laura McCarthy told lawmakers Monday that the legislation is based on more than a year of study on how to safely expand prescribed burning in New Mexico.

Federal and state land managers, she said, already use burning as part of a strategy to keep forests healthy. A prescribed burn in the Santa Fe National Forest, McCarthy said, helped protect the Santa Fe ski basin in last year’s Medio Fire.

The legislation would clarify legal liability for private landowners and establish a training and certification program for carrying out prescribed fires safely.

“We know prescribed burning works to protect the things we care about,” McCarthy said.

Rep. Matthew McQueen, D-Galisteo, said New Mexico has had a fire-suppression policy embedded in its laws since 1882, or 30 years before statehood. It’s contributed to overgrown forests at risk of devastating wildfires, he said.

McQueen described the bill as “a change in policy 100 years in the making.”

He is jointly sponsoring the legislation with Rep. Gail Armstrong, R-Magdalena; Senate Majority Leader Peter Wirth, D-Santa Fe; and Sen. Pat Woods, R-Broadview.

A mix of conservation and agricultural groups testified in favor of it.

Sarah Cottrell Propst, secretary of the Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, said the legislation would help the state better manage its forests amid a changing climate.

“The ability to conduct prescribed burns on private land can help prevent future wildfires from becoming more intense,” she said in a written statement, “especially in the face of warmer and drier conditions due to climate change.”

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