Mr. President, welcome to New Mexico. We wish your first visit to the Land of Enchantment as leader of the free world was under better circumstances. We know you’re receiving regular briefings on our wildfires, but it will be good to see you here Saturday because New Mexicans need to hear from their commander in chief.
Sir, many New Mexicans are angry. They’re angry with the federal government after two prescribed burns set by the U.S. Forest Service got out of control and merged in the Las Vegas area to create the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak fire, the biggest wildfire in state history. It’s burned more than 340 homes in northeast New Mexico since April and forced up to 18,000 people to evacuate. It’s devastated 317,000 acres of our precious forests, which take generations to grow.
Their anger isn’t new though, Mr. President. Resentment toward the Forest Service, which controls almost a third of the state’s forested lands, has been smoldering for decades. Agency policies have limited the collection of firewood and grazing, creating a tinderbox of neglected forests in an era of climate change and historic drought.
We appreciate you moving swiftly more than a month ago and granting our governor’s request for a Presidential Disaster Declaration for Colfax, Lincoln, Mora, San Miguel and Valencia counties. Residents shouldn’t have to wait for the fires to be out to begin rebuilding their lives. The Federal Emergency Management Agency’s swift approval will help get millions of dollars of disaster relief to New Mexicans faster, helping rebuild roads and bridges, water control facilities, public buildings and utilities, parks and other recreational facilities.
Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who invited you here, is on point that the federal government should cover 100% of recovery costs for the wildfires and waive the usual 25% non-federal match from local governments. And the cash needs to be tracked to ensure it gets to those who need it.
The Black Fire burning in the Gila National Forest and the Cerro Pelado Fire between Cochiti Lake and Jemez Springs are ravaging the state, too. We depend on outdoor tourism, and we’re going to need help restoring our riparian forests so they don’t remain ponderosa pine wastelands prone to flash flooding and landslides. The Forest Service manages 25% of our fishing habitat, and agency officials now predict ash will flow into streams, rivers and acequias, possibly overwhelming water treatment facilities and harming water quality for years to come. The Gallinas River, the source of drinking water for the city of Las Vegas, faces danger from flooding and broader damage to the watershed.
We also need improved local consultation before any prescribed burns on federal lands. Forest Service fire management practices should never cause another wildfire.
While you’re here, there are a few other long-standing issues you should know about.
The federal government, the state of New Mexico and its pueblos and tribes are partners in the nation’s defense and in land conservation. We are inextricably linked through our military bases, research labs and vast swaths of federal lands.
Yet, our Downwinders still aren’t covered by the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act 77 years after Trinity, fentanyl and other illegal drugs continue to flow across the nation’s southern border and into our state, and a fourth-generation Clovis dairyman can’t get federal compensation for thousands of cows he had to euthanize because of toxic chemicals from Cannon Air Force Base.
We hope we have your ear on these legacy issues, Mr. President.
We need the federal government to be a good partner and make our state, forests and people whole again. We hope your visit is productive, and we hope to see you here again, soon, under happier circumstances — when you can truly enjoy and appreciate our Land of Enchantment.
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.