New effort aims to protect watersheds

PUBLISHED: Sunday, January 4, 2015 at 12:02 am

Copyright © 2015 Albuquerque Journal

lauraWatching 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.

The Nature Conservancy’s Laura McCarthy is developing a partnership between government and the private sector in an experiment intended to expand the scale of forest restoration work in New Mexico. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

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.
The 2011 Las Conchas blaze caused extensive damage and its effects are still being felt today. (Dean Hanson/Albuquerque Journal)

“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.”