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With our public forest lands increasingly vulnerable to devastating forest fires, many people have begun to question the competence of the U.S. Forest Service.
But this agency is unquestionably skilled in irritating citizens and harming businesses with steadily growing numbers of restrictions to public forest land.
Some of these restrictions appear to be arbitrary and poorly justified.
The closure of the Jemez Las Conchas burn scar to all entry is a case in point. This appears to be an unwarranted and bewildering overreaction.
Only 19 percent of the burn scar was severely burned and more have half was either lightly affected or untouched by fire.
Access to these slightly affected areas is a sensible expectation, certainly for pedestrians.
Yet the USFS remains obstinate and the continued closure of the area has outraged hikers who want to survey their public land, eliminated planned deer and elk hunts, and damaged businesses such as lodges and outfitters.
There is a better way to manage public land, as exemplified by two public forest properties that were included in the fire zone.
The Bandelier National Monument and the Valles Caldera National Preserve are open for visitors, including vehicular traffic, hunters and hikers.
While these two agencies demonstrate respect for the rights of the citizen-owners of these public lands to access their property, the USFS seems to have confused public land stewardship with private land ownership.
Jason Lott, superintendent of Bandelier explained that the National Park Service’s mission is to help citizens “enjoy their property” by allowing them to use it.
“Our goal following the fire was to open the Monument to the public as soon as possible, once we completed assessments and understood the conditions of the landscape,” he said. “But we were hampered by flood risks.”
Lott suggested that flooding was “at least a 75-year rain event” and the ensuing torrent “would probably have been substantial, even without the fire,” but it strained the budget and caused delays.
Given his priority to open the monument to citizens, Lott sought the assistance of Los Alamos County, which he considers to be a collaborator in properly managing the monument.
The county agreed to supply bus service between White Rock and Bandelier so that the public could visit the Monument while Lott’s team reorganized.
Lott explained that such collaboration is common in the park service.
“Local businesses and the neighboring communities provide services that our visitors need to enjoy their public property. They will sleep in lodges, shop in stores and eat in restaurants. It is a winner for both of us.”
Sharon Stover, chair of Los Alamos County Council agreed. “Bandelier is a productive and cooperative neighbor that supports our community,” she said.
Lott is extraordinarily serious about citizen access to Bandelier and maintains a professional journal of his activities.
Dozens of his log books document his NPS career. In the opening pages of each log book he has hand-written the NPS mission statement.
“I want to be constantly reminded that we exist to serve the public by allowing them access to their property,” he said.
The Valles Caldera National Preserve is also open to most activities and the elk hunts have been on schedule.
Dennis Trujillo, executive director, worked with his staff to mitigate flooding issues on roads and to remove hazard trees along trails, especially in the areas most affected by fire.
Thus, even the severely burned areas have been open to hunters this fall.
Trujillo explained that the fire-induced hazards, such as burned trees, will remain in place for years to come.
“We have staff looking at potential hazards and respond accordingly to the forecasted weather for every event,” he explained.
Trujillo is also diligently working to restore the world class fisheries damaged by the ash that washed into the streams.
“I would like to have fishers back on those waters by next spring,” he said.
The actions of Lott and Trujillo demonstrate a fruitful and enlightened approach to managing public forest property, one that respects the rights of citizen-owners to access and use their lands.
If the USFS could expand their vision and emulate these actions, all parties would benefit.
The time is right for a new approach.
The place to start is in the Jemez Mountains.
Retired laboratory researcher, registered hunt and fish guide