Blackened land and red ink

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By Sherry Robinson

Clearing out old magazines last week, I came across a National Geographic (May 2010) story summarizing simply and graphically how, exactly, the 230-square-mile blast zone around Mount St. Helens is recovering.
If life can return on this most damaged of lands, it’s encouraging for us.
Ecologists expected most growth to begin on the margins.
Instead, it’s recovering from the inside out. Surviving pocket gophers pushed soil to the surface, where wind-blown seeds landed and took root; perennials poked through the ash, shrubs resprouted.
Other burrowing creatures, like toads and mice, emerged. As new plants appeared, insects returned; elk hooves broke up the crust and mixed ash and soil. It will take 50 years for a forest to reappear.
During a visit to Los Alamos last winter, a homeowner proudly showed me the slope behind her house. Burned in 2000, it now boasts the small trees she planted and a matching effort by Mother Nature.
This scientist has no illusions about a speedy transformation, but she’s enjoyed watching each bit of growth and change.
We also learn that the Forest Service’s aerial application of fast-germinating grass seed in Lincoln National Forest is beginning to sprout on blackened ground. The agency is following up with straw mulch to reduce erosion and slow runoff.
We should be thinking about recovery on a large scale. Instead we have the finger pointing that follows every fire.
Ranchers blame environmentalists, who, they say, have interfered with forest thinning and halted logging.
Environmentalists counter that if Washington had listened to warnings about global warming, we’d be better prepared; they’ve filed few lawsuits over thinning.
They generally support prescribed burns, but local residents often object to the smoke, and every now and then, as we know, a prescribed burn gets out of control.
According to the GAO, litigation challenges to thinning have declined.
In New Mexico, between 2006 and 2008, none of the projects went to court; nationally just 2 percent were contested, and New Mexico and Arizona treated more acreage than any other region in the national forest system.
If you’ve been reading, you know how we got here: thick forests of spindly trees produced by a century of fire suppression; the driest winter and spring in New Mexico in recorded history, and climate change.  
Lately, Catron County native Max Kiehne blamed the government. He proposes to shut down federal land management agencies and transfer ownership to the private sector, which would then manage grazing, logging, mining, hunting and recreation.
While you ponder that, consider that the only recourse right now is a government program, the Community Forest Restoration Act, authored by the only politician on the planet who never calls attention to himself, Sen. Jeff Bingaman.
The 10-year-old program, which provides grants for projects on public land, began here and is now nationwide.
Over the last decade, tribes, communities, Boy Scouts and others have designed projects to reduce wildfire threat, restore ecosystems, plant trees, protect old and large trees, and use small-diameter trees for products and firewood.
By the numbers: 144 grants, 99 organizations, 20 counties and nearly 600 jobs. They’ve treated about 30,000 acres.
It’s a drop in the bucket.
We used to think a few thousand acres was a big fire; now they can reach hundreds of square miles. The Forest Service thinned or burned 1.5 million acres last year, mostly around communities, or the losses would have been far worse.
Republican congressmen in Arizona want to see full funding for the program and call for more preventive work in the forests.
It’s a tough sell to lawmakers trying to reduce the deficit, but this is one of those times when it’s pay now or pay later.

Sherry Robinson
© New Mexico News Services 2011