Watching the towering plume of smoke as New Mexico’s Las Conchas Fire tore through an acre a second on a dry summer afternoon in 2011, Laura McCarthy knew immediately that things had changed.
But it was not until nearly two months later, when ash-clogged water in the Rio Grande downstream of the burn zone forced Albuquerque to shut down its Rio Grande water supply intakes, that she realized how much.
For two decades, first as a federal employee and then working for the Nature Conservancy, an environmental group, McCarthy had worked steadily to scale up efforts to restore the West’s forests, thick and unhealthy after a century of ill-advised management policies.
Nearly a century of fighting fires allowed fuel to grow in a way that has had the opposite of its intended effect – the risks from fires now, when they do happen, is far greater than if we had just let them burn.
“We’ve got forests that are overgrown and fire prone,” McCarthy said in a recent interview. “We have fire behavior that’s changing, driven by high temperatures and winds, and there are downstream effects when it rains on a severely burned area.”
The Las Conchas Fire’s unprecedented behavior as it burned through the Jemez Mountains west of Santa Fe convinced her in a flash that all those previous efforts to get ahead of the fire danger had been too little, too slow.
“We needed to invent a new way to go about it,” she said.
What McCarthy did next sets her effort apart. Eschewing the traditional politics of forest problems – pointing a finger of blame at state or federal agencies for not doing enough, or pushing for the establishment of yet another government effort – McCarthy began patiently building an entirely new institution to tackle the problem.
The resulting nonprofit partnership among the business sector, water agencies and government forest managers is working to build new ways to collaborate in forest restoration on a far larger scale than ever before attempted.
As much as it is an effort to fix the forests – and save millions of dollars by preventing destructive fires – it also is an experiment in a new approach to solving large problems when current government institutions are ill-suited to the task.
“She clearly is coming from the point of view that it’s a shared responsibility,” said Bernalillo County Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins, a supporter of the effort.
The program, under the umbrella of the newly formed Rio Grande Water Fund, already has raised $700,000 from a variety of sources and is angling for much more.
For starters, the group is targeting two areas its members view as critical for the state – the headwaters that supply Albuquerque’s San Juan-Chama project water and the growing communities of the Albuquerque metro area’s East Mountains, one of the highest risk areas in New Mexico’s so-called “wildland-urban interface.”
The approach has won widespread support.
“Protection of the watersheds is an important component of protecting our supply,” said Hart Stebbins, who also serves on the Albuquerque Bernalillo County Water Utility Authority board.
The list of participants includes business groups, such as the commercial builders of NAIOP, the Association of Commerce and Industry and the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, along with government agencies with forest responsibility like the U.S. Forest Service and a wide range of water agencies concerned about protecting their sources of supply.
One hope is that, with sustained funding, momentum can be built to support a revived forest products industry in New Mexico, said Dale Dekker, an Albuquerque architect and one of McCarthy’s early private-sector supporters.
The initial money, raised from private contributions and government agencies, would fund crews to thin forests, but Dekker’s hope is that, over time, the sale of wood products could help make the efforts at least in part self-supporting.
When McCarthy made a presentation to a Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce committee he chaired, Dekker said he immediately saw the economic benefits – a business opportunity for the forest products industry alongside a clear benefit in protecting the watersheds that provide Albuquerque’s water.
“We saw that, through Laura’s efforts, we really were creating a solution to a problem, but also economic development,” Dekker said.
An analysis by McCarthy and her colleagues estimates the cost of treatment – clearing overgrown forests – at $700 an acre. That compares with $2,150 per acre in firefighting costs and damages when a forest burns, they found.
The costs of doing the restoration work are significant – $21 million per year over the next 20 years to tackle the estimated 600,000 acres targeted for the work in the mountain watersheds of the Rio Grande and Rio Chama.
By comparison, fighting the Las Conchas Fire cost an estimated $48 million, according to an analysis by University of New Mexico economics professor Janie Chermak, while the fire’s resulting damage to watersheds and downstream communities pushed the total cost of that single fire to more than $200 million.
The program’s backers acknowledge that finding the funding commitments, which will require a mix of government and private money, remains a challenge. The group has approached the New Mexico Legislature, and the Water and Natural Resources Interim Committee voted in December to support a bipartisan bill that would generate $15 million per year from insurance premium taxes.
They also are hoping to persuade water agencies to contribute because of the water supply security benefits, Dekker said.
“I’m optimistic that we’re going to get there,” Dekker said.