The CFRP granting process solidifies and deepens that consensus. Applicants are required to work with a wide range of stakeholders. Chacon and a colleague, Hispano activist and grantwriter Luis Torres (also a member of HCN’s board of directors), asked Forest Guardians to join their proposal. "We were the grand prize," Bird says, because of the Guardians’ reputation for not compromising. The group agreed to participate, with the proviso that the project’s thinning prescriptions would be altered to save habitat for Abert’s squirrels, which prefer stands of trees with interlocking canopies.
"It was very refreshing, meeting Alfonso," Bird says. "He’s vocal about his love for the land and the forests, and I immediately had trust that he wanted to do the right thing."
Chacon likes to boast that he’s never cut a big tree, and his handiwork today bears no resemblance to the old days of industrial-scale logging, when Southwestern logging sites were rife with big stumps and churned-up soil. The stand is open and sunny, rich with mid-sized ponderosa pines, white-barked aspens, and — thanks to this summer’s plentiful monsoon rains — verdant grasses. Chacon darts around with the agility of a much younger man, lifting up cut fir branches to reveal new grasses and mushrooms thriving in the shelter and moisture they provide.
"This is the best the forest has ever looked," he says. Indeed, it’s hard to believe it’s been logged, until Chacon points out the many small stumps, about the diameter of cups and saucers. His crew cut those trees with chain saws, lopped the branches off, and carried the wood out of the forest by hand.
Chacon sold some of them as latillas and others as firewood. But that wasn’t nearly enough to pay for the necessary equipment, gasoline and labor. That’s where the CFRP grant comes in. It provides Chacon $120,000 a year — minus taxes — to do the work. Yet there’s more than tree-cutting involved: Chacon must collaborate with a variety of stakeholders, including Forest Guardians. And he has to develop a monitoring plan, so the effects of his work can be recorded.
So Chacon contracted with the Forest Guild, a Santa Fe-based nonprofit that specializes in community forestry projects. The Guild coordinated the development of an ecological monitoring plan that measures such variables as canopy cover, fuel loads, understory plant cover, and stand clumpiness, a factor important to Abert’s squirrels. Last summer, youths from the local community group Las Communidades spent two days on the thinning site learning how to measure those variables. It’s knowledge that might help them find work in the woods in the future.
This is the CFRP ideal: Work that helps both the woods and the local economy. And everybody involved in the project learns something — including how to get along.
"We’re creating very powerful alliances here of land-based communities and environmental groups," Bird says, as he and Chacon look at mushrooms together. "We’re finding a common love of the land."
Of course, "We still have some disagreements," as Bird says later. "We don’t agree about cattle grazing. But for now, we’re focusing on what we can agree on." And one thing they agree on is that they benefit by working together. Forest Guardians builds rapport with local communities, and Chacon gains an ally with considerable expertise in battling the Forest Service, the agency his community has wrestled with for generations.
"You know what, Bryan, I think I’ve changed a lot of people’s minds about you around here," Chacon tells Bird. "I mean that. Sometimes we’re going to have to get you to fight in the courtroom, and we’ll be out here backing you 100 percent."
The Collaborative Forest Restoration Program owes its existence to a man named Walter Dunn, who coordinates the program from the Forest Service’s Southwestern Region office in Albuquerque. Before and after he did his graduate work in conflict resolution at the University of Idaho, Dunn worked in Latin America for the Peace Corps and for the Forest Service Office of International Programs. He helped design community-based forestry and economic development projects. Work conditions were challenging, he recalls: Occasionally, some members of indigenous communities would "show up for meetings packing Uzis under their ponchos."
Dunn soon realized that the technical details of forestry projects were less important than the social ones. "What led to their success or failure was more the durability of their partnerships than technical decisions such as spacing of the trees," he says. "As a natural resource manager, that was quite a surprise to me."
Dunn brought this perspective with him to Capitol Hill in 1998, when, as part of a Brookings Institution legislative-affairs fellowship, he began to work on natural resource issues for New Mexico Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D. He helped craft legislation allocating $5 million a year for community-based forest restoration projects in New Mexico. The legislation passed Congress in 2000: CFRP was born. Over the past five years, the program has doled out three-year grants of up to $360,000 to 75 projects throughout New Mexico. Today, those projects are thinning trees on about 20,000 acres of public and tribal land, in ecosystems ranging from riparian bosques to montane mixed-conifer forests. According to an assessment written last year by a technical review panel, they have created some 500 jobs in tree-cutting, wood-processing, and monitoring work.
Decisions about which projects to fund are made not by the Forest Service or other land-management agencies, but by a technical advisory panel made up of agency managers and members from a variety of local groups, communities and tribes.