Use ‘good fire’ on private lands to restore lost forests

13 February 2021

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USA – The Southwest is again suffering extreme drought, and the upcoming wildfire season could be another bad one. We have seen this pattern before during La Niña conditions in the Pacific Ocean when the jet stream shifts northward, diverting winter moisture away from the Southwest. Then during the hot spring-summer months, megafires burn New Mexico forests and homes nestled within them. A policy of aggressively extinguishing wildfires over the past century has led to accumulated fuels — dead and overgrown vegetation. Now, when wildfires burn in these altered forests during record-breaking droughts, they are extraordinarily severe, killing large patches of trees.

The tree-killing trinity of hotter droughts, bark beetles and wildfires threatens old-growth forest and endangered species, while causing extensive deforestation of vital watersheds, massive soil erosion and damage to water supplies. With continued warming due to climate change, many of these killed forests will not grow back, at least not without our help.

As forest ecologists who have spent our long careers studying New Mexico landscapes and climate, these historically anomalous, human-driven changes are both fascinating and depressing to witness. Naturally, we love trees and forests. One of us has evacuated his home and office twice because of wildfires since 2000, and the other lives in a fire-prone ponderosa pine forest. This is the conundrum facing New Mexicans today: What can we do about the increasing loss of our beloved forests, damage to our watersheds and threats to our homes and livelihoods?

Fortunately, the New Mexico Legislature is now considering two bills that will provide essential tools for private landowners and forest managers to help deal with these problems:

House Bill 57, Prescribed Burning Act

Federal and state forestry agencies are working hard to decrease wildfire threats by reducing forest and woodland fuels with forest thinning and prescribed burning. “Thinning” means reducing forest density by cutting primarily smaller diameter trees. “Prescribed burning” means carefully using “good fire.” This includes burning piles of branches and stems that result from thinning, or setting low-severity ground fires within a contained area to consume long-accumulated fuels.

These practices can emulate ancient patterns of frequent low-severity fires started by lightning and people, which formerly sustained forests and Indigenous communities living within them.

Thinning and prescribed burning have proven successful at saving forests and homes, but we need to substantially increase the pace and scale. We can either reduce extreme wildfire risk by judicious forest management, including tolerating some smoke from good fires, or we can accept increasingly destructive wildfires that emit much more smoke. Clearly, the latter is not a viable option. Government agency leadership in restoring resilient federal and state lands is essential but not enough. Private landowners in New Mexico must also do their part on their properties.

Currently, the liability for private landowners wanting to do prescribed burning is strict, with double damages if fires accidentally escape and burn other people’s property. The prescribed burning skills of landowners and contractors need to be developed with training to safely conduct burning on private lands.

The Prescribed Burning Act will address these issues by implementing a training and certification program. It will also change the liability standard for prescribed burning to negligence and reduce damages for certified landowner-burners to the actual cost of any losses incurred by escaped fires. Similar commonsense prescribed-burning laws have been enacted in 21 other states. The primary goal is to empower landowners and increase areas treated on private lands to reduce wildfire risks.

Senate Bill 180, New Mexico Reforestation Center Act

The loss of forest and woodland cover in watersheds due to widespread tree death is increasing and alarming. Erosion of soils and hotter droughts in coming years means that without pro-active reforestation efforts, many of the severely burned areas will not recover to forest on their own.

This act will build the capacity of forest scientists and managers to collect forest tree seeds, grow seedlings and replant severely burned areas. Funds will enable New Mexico universities to establish the needed infrastructure and expertise to lead extensive reforestation work.

New Mexicans should take responsibility for reducing wildfire risks on their properties. Climate change and associated impacts are happening now, and they’re going to get worse before reductions occur in global greenhouse gases and temperatures. We need to get working on restoring forests lost already and protecting our vital watersheds. The proposed legislation will give private landowners, scientists and forest managers needed tools to do this essential work.

Thomas Swetnam is regents professor emeritus, University of Arizona; he resides in Jemez Springs. Craig Allen is a retired scientist with U.S. Geological Survey, New Mexico Landscapes Field Station, and adjunct professor, University of New Mexico; he resides in Nambé.

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