On a hot summer afternoon in 2011, a gust of wind blew an aspen into a power line in northern New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains. Electrical sparks ignited the Las Conchas Fire, which burned more than an acre a second in its first 14 hours, eventually covering 245 square miles. The fire burned reservation land of four Pueblo tribes and much of Bandelier National Monument. It destroyed more than 60 homes in total and came frighteningly close to Los Alamos National Laboratory. Some 90 miles south in Albuquerque, the Rio Grande flowed black.
Las Conchas is the type of conflagration lawmakers point to when they talk of reforming wildfire management. Many agree that getting a handle on the West’s wildfires means more logging on public lands, but they disagree on how to do it. Rep. Rob Bishop, R-Utah, who chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources, wrote in an op-ed that the West’s wildfires could be “contained and even prevented” if environmental groups stopped litigating and logging continued unencumbered. But many Democrats blame factors such as climate change and growing fire fuel loads for the increasing length and severity of Western wildfires. Instead of overturning environmental protections, Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., said at a recent hearing, “Congress should fix the wildfire budget. That’s the issue.” Meanwhile, the West burns.
The best way forward from this impasse may be found, intriguingly, in New Mexico’s past. For millennia, people thrived in northern New Mexico’s fire-prone ecosystems. Their lessons could help resolve today’s urgent debate over smart logging. As land managers try to resurrect logging practices very similar to the methods used for centuries by Ancestral Pueblo people, the state could serve as a model for creating fire-safe communities throughout the West.
For more than 12,000 years, humans have inhabited the Jemez Plateau, a landscape of forested mountains, rolling grasslands and deep canyons. Beginning in the 13th century, ancestral Jemez people built villages of 50 to more than 1,000 rooms in the region’s ponderosa pine forests. By 1600, between 5,000 and 8,000 people lived on the mesas, in approximately 10 large villages. They were the original inhabitants of what planners today would call a wildland-urban interface, or WUI. Yet even at the height of the Jemez Plateau’s pre-European settlement, no communities burned down — a startling contrast to today’s big Western burns. Over the past few years, archaeologists, fire ecologists and tribal members have traced the region’s intertwined history of communities and conflagrations, seeking to understand why.
What they have found is that the villages’ ancestral Jemez residents essentially practiced selective logging. Life on the Jemez Plateau required all the fine fuels that villagers could get their hands on. In roof construction alone, villagers cut hundreds of thousands of small-diameter timbers for supportive vigas, while understory growth went for fuelwood. Outside of villages, trails and agricultural fields acted as firebreaks.
“People really manipulated fuels just by living on the mesas,” says fire ecologist Thomas Swetnam. More fires burned on the Jemez Plateau than today, but they were very small and rarely became destructive crown fires. A fire usually burned a single tree or agricultural field before burning out. In fact, studies of the fire scars on centuries-old living trees, as well as carbon remains from long-gone forests, suggest that megafires could not have burned: The combination of frequent small fires and selective logging used up too much fuel.
But the fire regime of the plateau depended on the people of the plateau, and the arrival of the Spanish devastated local communities. In just six decades — between 1620 and 1680 — Jemez Pueblo declined catastrophically, from about 6,500 people to fewer than 850 survivors of famine, disease and warfare. During the Pueblo Revolt of 1680, Southwestern Pueblo tribes united to fight off the Spanish, after which surviving Jemez tribal members either relocated or were forcibly taken to Spanish missions. New tree growth crept into emptied villages as walls crumbled.
Fire suppression on the mesas began in earnest in the 1870s, when thousands of sheep and cattle were shipped in by rail. In the early 20th century, most of northern New Mexico’s forests were logged, leaving only rare old-growth stands in wilderness areas and national parks. The U.S. Forest Service suppressed wildfires to support logging, increasing fuel loads even more. Even today, fires make Westerners in the WUI uneasy and tend to be suppressed quickly. And so fuels accumulate, and as the West becomes hotter and drier, megafires become more frequent. Nothing burns — until a hot, dry year, when everything does. Jemez Plateau fire-scar data tracks the shift in burn patterns from small, frequent blazes, to today’s climate-linked scorchers.
Released from fire, dense ponderosa stands have grown on the plateau’s logged mesas. In some places, 5,000 to 10,000 ponderosa pines grow in just one acre; century-old trees are only a few inches thick. “They’re very abnormal trees,” Swetnam says. Nothing grows underneath them because the light can’t get through. These doghair stands produce the hottest crown fires. From the ashes, clonal shrublands of Gambel’s oak and thorny New Mexico locust sprout, outcompeting ponderosas to dominate the landscape. More flammable shrublands appear with each big fire. Botanists don’t yet know when — or if — anything else will replace them.
Some northern New Mexicans are trying to make their communities fire-safe once more, in part through forest management strategies similar to those of ancestral Jemez people. The Forest Stewards Guild, a Santa Fe-based forestry nonprofit, calls its method “ecological forestry.” Working with land managers, crews selectively log a forest — for lumber that can be sold, if that is the landowner’s preference — then follow with controlled burns. The goal is not to erase fires from fire-evolved landscapes. Instead, if all goes well, future fires will burn in ways that humans can abide, such as by moving slowly and burning low to the ground. Guild director Zander Evans says such pre-burn treatments usually mean “the difference between saving a house or community or not.”
“We thin the forest in a historically relevant way that is trying to restore (forest) structure and function, and we follow up with fire,” Evans says. “Those treatments can change wildfire behavior.” The aim is to re-create communities of large trees scattered within fuel-free understories, similar to what historically grew on the landscape. Because this would mean fewer trees competing for water, the forests will, ideally, be healthier overall, and better able to adapt to the drying conditions they will face in a warming climate.
Tying fire management to lumber profits is difficult at best in places like the Jemez Plateau. New Mexico’s forests aren’t lush enough to grow small-size timber as a renewable resource — and even in places where trees regrow quickly, the market for understory growth may not exist. “There are some people who have done some amazing things taking that small-diameter wood and figuring out ways to make it at least pay its way out of the woods,” Evans says. “Around here (in Santa Fe) we make fences out of it, and you can use it for firewood, but it’s tough.” Because the guild’s mission includes trying to help local economies, it will also log larger trees. But at the end of the day, to avoid the kind of big fires that lay waste to lumber of all sizes, the guild focuses on removing the small fuels. Fire-wary locals who pay for logging even when the wood is of no marketable value may simply burn the woodpiles on-site.
Swetnam supports “logging from below,” or removing small-diameter understory trees, followed by controlled burning. “We should keep the big trees as much as possible,” he says. There are so few left after a century of logging, and they are seed sources for the forests of the future. When it’s necessary to take large trees, Swetnam encourages using the wood to support the local economy, as the guild and Jemez Pueblo are doing: They are collaborating to restore fire resilience to the Jemez Plateau, in part by milling lumber on the tribe’s land.
But Swetnam is less concerned about making money than he is about solving what he calls the region’s “fire-drought.” Perhaps that’s because he thinks about the Jemez Plateau WUI on the scale of millennia, not months. “My own feeling is that we’re long overdue for this investment,” he says. “Whether or not we make a useable product is a secondary concern.”
Maya L. Kapoor is an associate editor with High Country News. She writes from Tucson.