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Walatowa Timber can be a model in other woodlands

New Mexico is struggling to recover from the tens of thousands of jobs lost in the 2008 recession, especially in rural areas. The recent growth of Walatowa Timber Industries – with support from Rio Grande Water Fund projects – offers hope and a model for other forested areas. The Conservancy-led, collaborative effort focuses on water security, community protection and job creation. Today, I want to focus on the economics: Generating new jobs and more wood supply to create products to sell and restoring forests to support our recreation industry.

If you haven’t heard of the Rio Grande Water Fund, it’s an innovative strategy that is dramatically increasing the scale and scope of forest restoration to protect water sources for 1 million people and wildlife – and to help prevent catastrophic fire. Our science-based solutions and determination have inspired dozens of individuals, government agencies, businesses, foundations and industry to join the effort. We know we must work together to restore nature so it can keep working for us.

In its 2013 report, the New Mexico Legislative Jobs Council estimated 160,000 jobs would need to be created to return to pre-recession employment levels. Developing a new cluster of economic-based enterprises in the small wood manufacturing sector was one of the council’s recommendations. Today, Walatowa Timber Industries has doubled the jobs based in their remote part of Sandoval County – from 11 to 22 employees.

Collaboration between TC Company and Jemez Pueblo, Walatowa Timber Industries joint owners, provides a working solution. Seeking smart ways to build the economic base, Sandoval County and consultant Mark Lautman identified small wood manufacturing as an opportunity.

With a partnership in place between TC Company and the Jemez Pueblo Economic Development Council, Walatowa Timber Industries secured a 5-year stewardship contract from the U.S. Forest Service. That’s critical for success because it guarantees product for five years, giving the company needed assurance to invest in people and expensive equipment.

With a secure wood supply for at least five years plus an option for five more, Walatowa purchased new, small-diameter wood processing equipment, creating a marketable use for trees thinned from overcrowded forests. From mulch to firewood and fireplace mantles, Walatowa can use every stick cut for highest-value products.

The dire need to restore overgrown forests, especially in the upper Rio Grande, provides an opportunity to bring economic base jobs to rural parts of New Mexico where unemployment is several points higher than in urban areas.

And it’s not just the wood industry. By keeping forests healthy, we’re also supporting tourism dollars. People flock to the Land of the Enchantment to soak in the stunning views while mountain biking, hiking, skiing, camping and more. The 2016 New Mexico Legislative Jobs Council report states recreation contributes the most growth to our economic base.

The Rio Grande Water Fund – a public-private partnership – has a goal to restore 600,000 acres of at-risk forests. On paper that should generate 300 or more jobs.

The economic development component is one reason the Albuquerque Community Foundation signed on as a partner and financial supporter of the Water Fund. Randy Royster, president and CEO of the Foundation, says the job creation and expansion of the forest-product market is aligned with the aim of moving the needle toward prosperity for more New Mexicans.

The Rio Grande Water Fund offers us a triple economic bottom line: New jobs, reduced probability of economic damages from severe wildfire, and increased water security.

Look to Walatowa as a model. We need to replicate it in other places to grow New Mexico’s economic base, especially in rural areas. Planning and wood supply availability are the two make-or-break factors. The Rio Grande Water Fund and partners are creating long-term plans to manage forests, raise funds and build capacity to increase acres ready for thinning. Slowly but surely, the jobs are following.