Some CFRP projects have run afoul of the kind of bureaucratic snares that have entangled other national forest projects. Most projects have been carried out where the agency had previously analyzed environmental impacts under the National Environmental Policy Act. But not all: Savage has worked on two grants intended to thin dense forests on the Santa Fe’s Rowe Mesa, where the nonprofit Quivira Coalition operates a livestock grazing grassbank (HCN, 9/5/05: Rangeland Revival). The first grant was awarded in 2001, and the work carried out between then and 2004. The second grant, awarded in 2004, was stalled because the agency had not completed its NEPA analysis.
Once it did complete the analysis, a familiar opponent appealed it: Sam Hitt, the Forest Guardians founder, who now runs a tiny advocacy group called Wild Watershed. He says the project lacks sufficient monitoring of impacts on wildlife. The first CFRP thinning project on Rowe Mesa was "a disaster," he says. "It looks horrible. I see a spiderweb of two-track roads out there where people drove in to collect firewood."
Hitt, who left Forest Guardians in 2001, is guarded when he talks about his former colleagues’ new alliances. "I’ve expressed my reservations to them," he says. "I would resist being embedded in that process. I would want to maintain independence."
But Savage believes environmental groups gain more from participating in projects than appealing them. By applying for grants under CFRP, she says, "They’ll have direct experience of the challenges and opportunities. The projects are harder to do than just to say that this is how it should be done."
The Forest Service recently sent a largely positive assessment of CFRP to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which will forward it to Congress. The report is unlikely to have much effect on New Mexico; CFRP’s enabling legislation has no sunset date, although the program’s funding needs annual authorization.
But the report may stimulate interest in other states. Last year, Rep. Rick Renzi, R-Ariz., introduced a bill that would expand the Collaborative Forest Restoration Program to Arizona, using an additional $5 million in annual funding; it has not yet made it out of the House Subcommittee on Forests and Forest Health. Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho, has also expressed interest in the program. But in these times of huge budget deficits and agency cuts, expansion of CFRP is a tough sell.
It’s worth asking, too, exactly how much the program has actually accomplished. The acreage it has treated is minuscule compared to the entire state. Almost 180,000 acres of national forest in New Mexico were treated in some way in fiscal year 2005, the Forest Service says, through projects funded by the controversial Healthy Forests Restoration Act, and through acts of nature such as the lightning strikes that ignite managed fires. This makes the CFRP’s achievements — 20,000 acres over five years — seem tiny, especially compared to the 3.3 million acres of New Mexico timberland that the Forest Service says are in need of treatment.
And it’s not cheap. "The per-acre costs for CFRP projects are relatively high," says Marlin Johnson, assistant director for forestry and forest health in the Forest Service’s Albuquerque office. "But," he adds, "they are an investment in the future, in that the collaborative relationships we are developing with communities should pay dividends in less controversy over future activities."
The projects are also regarded as an important educational tool. Rick DeIaco, for example, says several CFRP-funded projects carried out in and around Ruidoso in southern New Mexico’s Sacramento Mountains have encouraged private landowners to work on their own land.
As a result, some 50 jobs in tree-trimming and related work have been created locally to thin private forests. Local entrepreneurs, funded in part by CFRP grants, collect some 60,000 cubic yards of wood, trimmed branches, and downed pine needles each year and turn it into animal bedding, compost and mulch.
"The CFRP seed money has really led to something sustainable in this case," says DeIaco, who serves as Ruidoso village forester. "Investing in human capital — that keeps going."
Still, no one disputes that CFRP projects have had a relatively modest economic impact, and have made only a small dent in New Mexico’s forest-health problem. Most have focused on simple tree-thinning rather than on true ecological restoration. But that may be changing: Several new projects are looking at larger landscapes.
One of those projects will teach local youth to assess how much wood can sustainably be removed from the 74,000 acres of Carson National Forest surrounding Vallecitos. This baseline survey could lead to more ambitious projects.
But as CFRP projects tackle larger forest areas, the odds increase that some environmentalists will oppose them. So will the chances — and the consequences — of disagreements between Forest Service officials who are used to making decisions, and local groups like Las Communidades or loggers like Chacon. A lot rides on the new relationships being forged by the current CFRP projects.
Watching Chacon and Byrd walk together through the forest, though, you can’t help but feel some optimism. Back in the mid-20th century, when there were jobs in the woods, no one thought about sustainability; the mills in northern New Mexico processed lumber at a rate at least 25 percent greater than the region’s annual tree growth. That angered the environmental community. But sustainability was also forgotten in the 1990s, when the entire regional logging industry — even some small-scale fuelwood harvesting — was shut down by environmental lawsuits. Again, animosity was nurtured by the lack of a middle path.
Today, you can see a middle path emerging from the dense thicket of the past. On the same day Bird and Chacon met at the Ensenada site, John Ussery of Las Communidades was not far away, overseeing a new sort of work at the mothballed Vallecitos sawmill. Among other things, Ussery’s grant calls for him to make use of the enormous pile of bark and shavings composting behind the mill, a relic of the days when huge yellow pines were dismantled with a 54-inch circular blade. Before day’s end, a small fleet of semi-trucks pulled out of the yard, hauling 100 cubic yards of aged mill waste to an organic farm near Abiquiu. Perhaps the social tools forged in the heat of New Mexico’s forest wars can likewise pull something at once new, productive and sustainable from the ashes of the past.
Peter Friederici writes from Flagstaff, Arizona, where he teaches journalism at Northern Arizona University. His latest book is Nature’s Restoration (Island Press, 2006). This story was funded by a grant from the McCune Charitable Foundation.
Mark Sardella’s nonprofit group Local Energy is determined to heat local communities with biomass energy, created by burning logging slash and millwaste from New Mexican forests