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Healthy Forests, Happy Potters: an innovative federal project in New Mexico is reducing wildfire danger by thinning trees as it fuels local creativity.

Ah, New Mexico! Essence of pinyon and juniper smoke, mixed with chainsaw bar oil and two-cycle engine exhaust. These scents don't relax their grip until days after the roaring saw falls silent. In its circuit around the bar, the whirring chain passes through a lubricating bath, then emerges to do its work, spraying woodchips and a thin line of oil wherever the sawyer directs the saw.

The odors of resin and oil linger on human skin and boot leather, reminding me that the shark-sharp teeth are never far from an artery, reminding me of New Mexico's wildfire dilemma: action is dangerous; inaction is catastrophic.

Native American Duane Lefthand of Taos Pueblo knows all about chainsaws and arteries--both the kind that bear human blood and the kind that bear water, the lifeblood of our high desert culture and economy. When moisture finally arrives during these droughty times, our rain and snow fall on the high, forested mountain watersheds that have slowly fed precious water to human communities here for millennia.


Duane Lefthand should know, for Taos Pueblo exemplifies 800 years of sustainable living that ended a century ago when the Forest Service completely suppressed fire to ecosystems where fire had been a frequent visitor. It was even a tool in the hands of fire-wise Native Americans and Hispanic settlers. Now millions of smaller trees have invaded these formerly open forests, setting the stage for hot, catastrophic fires. In the aftermath, ash and unstable soils erode, destroying water supplies.

To a forest ecologist like me, Duane is a thinner, not a logger. Following an ecological prescription to release promising ponderosa pines to become tomorrow's old-growth, Lefthand's crew cuts small-diameter trees that choke out big ponderosas. These ponderosas will become the ecological foundation of our restorable but damaged ecosystems.

Today, however, Duane and I are not in the dense, diseased, and dying woods of the Kit Carson National Forest around our homes in Taos, but at a Forest Service-sponsored meeting down south in Santa Fe. As an ecologist, I value biodiversity. As an environmentalist who has worked for a long time in the Southwest, I'm glad the days of "harvesting" trophy ponderosas are over. But I also know these forests co-evolved with fire-wielding humans. And that cultural diversity and biodiversity can and should depend on each other.



In the face of drought, wildfire danger, and cultural conflict, people can get very creative. Two progressive politicians who represent northern New Mexico, Sen. Jeff Bingaman and Rep. Tom Udall, teamed up in 2000 to pass federal legislation that created the Community Forest Restoration Program (CFRP). It's funded at around $5 million per year out of monies dedicated to Forest Service fire programs.

Walter Dunn of the Forest Service administers this New Mexico-only experimental program, which has approved 62 projects costing $17.9 million. Well aware of their diverse constituencies, Bingaman and Udall insisted on diverse recipients, including 13 tribes, Hispanic communities and organizations, scientific researchers, and environmental groups.

CFRP's cover lands are managed by the Forest Service and other federal agencies, the state of New Mexico, and local authorities. Long-term monitoring is required to ensure that forest restoration doesn't degenerate into mere forest thinning.

Each far-flung National Forest has a coordinator. Ignacio Peralta of the Carson National Forest has just introduced me to Duane Lefthand, who grins as he tells me his small business, Southpaw Industries, wants to grow. He wants to offer its services beyond pueblo lands to CFRP's working in the steep, narrow firetrap canyons around Taos.

I'm grinning too, because as the forester for our little nonprofit, Healthy Forest-Happy Potters, I need a trained crew to thin our 201-acre project area in a culturally sensitive way. We will be cutting thousands of small-diameter trees in the ancestral home of today's Taos Pueblo and Picuris Pueblo.

Duane Lefthand knows all about wildfire danger to cultural resources and to big, old trees. On July 4, 2003, a lightning bolt struck the tinder-dry trees on a ridge that separates Taos Pueblo's lands from where I live near the little community of Pot Creek--named for its history as the site of kilns that lined its banks a thousand years ago. As we helplessly watched, a pitch-black smoke plume swelled under high winds into a 150-foot-high front of flames that threatened Taos Pueblo itself, a United Nations World Historical Site. Thus was the Encebado Fire born. The inferno reduced to ash many sacred sites on the Pueblo.

After a month of sometimes desperate work by hundreds of federal firefighters, the Encebado Fire was brought under control. Seemingly out of control were the $10 million in suppression costs. Similarly swollen were the burned area rehabilitation costs: another $10 million in taxpayer dollars.

Northern New Mexico's economy has been based on tourism and the arts since the founding of the national forests a century ago. Our only other major industry is nuclear research at the Los Alamos National Laboratory. When the current drought hit us in the late 1990s, we started to experience unprecedented wildfires like the Cerro Grande Fire of 2001.

That fire threatened not just humans but also nuclear bomb research facilities--and cost $1 billion to suppress and rehab. Economists started to look beyond those relatively simple and direct costs to what happens when big fires fill our pristine skies with smoke, ash, and flying embers: tourists leave--and don't return.

Walt Hecox of Colorado College figured out a way to put numbers not only on the value of clean air and clean water to the tourist industry, but also on the value of the arts component of the tourist industry itself. Taosenos were surprised to learn that the arts generate almost a quarter of our economy.

Fire researcher Dennis Lynch of Colorado State University reminds us the original mission of the Forest Service was a noble one: rehabing damaged forest watersheds. Lynch invites us to compare costs of a fire like Encebado to the costs of a fire in a watershed that was previously thinned in the way we want to thin the Pot Creek watershed.


In the language of economics, we need to turn catastrophic fire costs into a forest investment stream for the future. That's a mouthful! I was among the many skeptics when CFRP started. I thought it might turn out to be just another in a long and depressing series of so-called "community-based conservation" programs funded by the federal government as a kind of quick-fix welfare program for noisy, unruly New Mexico.

In 2003, the University of New Mexico Press published my latest book, In Fire's Way: a Practical Guide to Life in the Wildfire Danger Zone. The book calls for communities to quit whining and actively partner with fire agencies to learn to live with fire as a natural part of southwestern ecosystems. At a local reading and book-signing, Karen Fielding and Pam Dean, two artists who run Dragonfly Journeys bed and breakfast, asked me to sign a book.

Then came their phone call. "We read your book, and we like the part where you say people living in dangerous wildfire areas should not be passive victims but active partners. We're inviting you to join us in protecting Pot Creek."

The rest is history. Next to Dragonfly Journeys runs the little creek whose floods and wandering meanders reveal ancient kilns and potsherds among today's water-loving cottonwoods. Around the year 1200, many thousands of Anasazi Indians lived and farmed and made pots in this valley.

By studying Pot Creek's abundant cultural remains, charcoal deposits, and tree rings, archaeologists from Southern Methodist University's nearby summer campus tell us that the Anasazi used fire as a tool--not just to harden their pots but also to strike a balance with their environment, to sustainably manage their forests.

Thanks to their expertise in setting relatively cool, frequent fires, they lived surrounded by open, park-like forests of stately, well-spaced, old-growth ponderosa pine. A big ponderosa's thick bark withstands the cool fires that conveniently leave behind them a charcoal ring to mark their passing. Like the ponderosas, the Anasazi lived more freely than we do today from hot, catastrophic wildfire.


Faced with such challenges, the U.S. Forest Service has acknowledged its past mistakes. Now it is trying to find partners to restore the forests. That's where Healthy Forest-Happy Potters (HFHP) enters the picture. Thanks to a grant from the Forest Service, HFHP will begin to thin the adjacent public lands in Pot Creek and use the harvested wood, some in its kiln to make pots. The kiln is designed not only for safety but also to produce beautiful wood-heat effects. It also serves as a hub for wildfire education and for HFHP's program of supplying free firewood to other wood-fire potters in the area. Beyond that, excess wood goes to the many local needy people who rely on firewood for heat.

HFHP wants its work to be as sustainable as possible. That means involving local high school and college students in the project so they learn both the art and the science of sustainable forestry, kiln building, and pot making. Every firing of the big kiln draws in some community group, such as the Girl Scouts, the Taos Pueblo Day School, the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps, local business owners, and even members of the Forest Service itself, whose employees seem to welcome the chance to wrap their hands around clay destined for HFHP's kiln.




Meanwhile, back in the windowless, airless room, present and potential grant recipients are trying to decide how to improve CFRP. It is clear from the remarks of Regional Forester Harv Forsgren that the Forest Service regards CFRP as a successful step in sharing power. And it is equally clear from talking to grant recipients that CFRP's success is uneven and fraught with various problems related to the difficulty of retooling a large centralized bureaucracy to work with unique, local constituencies.

Walter Dunn details the number of acres treated to date: approximately 6,000 at $1,200/acre, including all costs. By region-wide standards, that's good value for the money, to say nothing of the 464 jobs created, especially in firewood production, but also in applications like P & M Plastics' project for making signs by mixing recycled plastic with ground juniper.

Dunn sums it up: "The biggest challenges are coordinating with the Forest Service's federal appropriations and project cycles and workman's compensation costs, as well as the question of who does NEPA (the National Environmental Policy Act). CFRP is an alternative to appeals and litigation. Can CFRP be institutionalized and spread to other states? No one doubts that it is working now. Should it continue as it is, or also expand to Arizona?"

Someone sitting next to me whispers: "The biggest challenge is understanding Forest Service gobbledygook!" She has a point. Some district foresters work well with their CFRP's, while others drag their feet on issues like NEPA. In addition to the vast amounts of paperwork, the contracting process itself creates headaches. HFHP wants to train local people in monitoring and project administration, not just chainsaw work. And we want to pay them for their time. But CFRP requires that everyone contribute 20 percent of their time in-kind. Offering minimum wage and then asking for a contribution of one hour out of every five is no way to build community support!

Even the all-important chainsaw work is vexing. Assuming that Duane Lefthand and HFHP can strike a deal, he still has to meet District Ranger Cecilia Romero Seesholtz's federal performance and safety standards. And until she finds time and personnel to inspect his work, he and his crew don't get paid. In a hand-to-mouth community like Taos, paycheck delays create unhappy workers.

Insurance is the biggest bugaboo of them all. HFHP must pay 79 cents to the New Mexico Workers Compensation fund for every dollar that goes to outfits like Lefthand's Southpaw Industries. While the Forest Service as a federal agency is self-insured, nonprofits like HFHP are not, leaving us spending scarce grant dollars not just on Workers Comp for our contractors but also on insurance for our board of directors.

Laura McCarthy of the Forest Guild researches Workers Comp. The status quo, she says, is that the price of contracts doubles and the big contracts go to larger interstate companies and not to locals. Further, the insurance industry does not distinguish between logging and thinning. This isn't unique to New Mexico, but New Mexico is such a small part of a big insurance picture that we can't create a separate category for thinning. For want of a better solution, the state of New Mexico runs an assigned risk pool, because on the market itself, CFRP's can't get private insurance.

The dollar costs of catastrophic wildfires are so high that we literally cannot afford to depend solely on agencies like the Forest Service to save us. We truly are all in this together, and we will have to find ways to work together to address issues ranging from true forest restoration to changes in the insurance industry.

And we can point to real triumphs in the CFRP program. Healthy Forest-Happy Potters' successful kiln is just one case. It's a great example of artists looking to the past for guidance in imagining a better, more sustainable, more creative future. And it's a real credit to the U.S. Forest Service that it can also learn from the past and collaborate with its neighbors in managing our public forests.

Author and ecologist Tom Wolf is working on a biography of Forest Service wilderness pioneer and landscape architect Arthur Carhart.

photos by Karen Fielding


In 2005 AMERICAN FORESTS prepared an assessment of CFRP with Fort Lewis College and the Pinchot Institute. Working with a national assessment team and financial support from the Forest Service, we completed A Multiparty Assessment of the New Mexico Collaborative Forest Restoration Program: Five Years of Implementation and Lessons. It became the basis for an official Forest Service report that has been transmitted to Congress.

A link to this CFRP report can be found on our AMERICAN FORESTS' website ( Two other relevant 2006 Forest Policy Center reports are also available online. Community-Based Forest Policy: Lessons and Future Directions discusses the past 10 years of work on community-based forest policy completed with support from the Ford Foundation and the Surdna Foundation. Perceptions and Participation in U.S. Community-Based Forestry is a national survey and report conducted with and for the Communities Committee of the 7th American Forest Congress.--Gerry Gray
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Title Annotation:COMMUNITIES
Author:Wolf, Tom
Publication:American Forests
Date:Jan 1, 2007
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