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NMSU experts help with Las Conchas wildfire recovery efforts

As New Mexico's record-breaking 2011 wildfire season got under way last spring, New Mexico State University personnel found themselves involved in emergency response efforts around the state. Evacuation of livestock was a major priority, and NMSU's involvement was primarily through the Cooperative Extension Service and the Southwest Border Food Safety and Defense Center.

In the aftermath of the fires, a number of NMSU personnel and offices are involved in recovery assistance efforts of various sorts.

Much of this activity is related to the huge Las Conchas fire, the largest wildfire in the state's history, which raged for more than a month, burned more than 156,000 acres, destroyed more than 100 buildings, and threatened Los Alamos National Laboratory and the town of Los Alamos.

The fire consumed 16,600 acres of Santa Clara Pueblo holdings, roughly a third of the tribe's land, including cultural sites, forest resources and critical watershed areas. NMSU's most tangible and long-term contribution to the recovery enterprise is likely to be in the form of seedlings from the university's Mora Research Center to support Santa Clara Pueblo reforestation efforts.

Tammy Parsons is a program coordinator at the Mora center. She said the Santa Clara Pueblo project started out as a reforestation and restoration effort before the fires came. It included a contract for 65,000 seedlings for 2011, to be used for riparian bosque and beaver habitat restoration.

According to Bruce Bower, forestry director for the Santa Clara Pueblo, some of that work was related to damage from the Oso Complex fire of 1998 and the Cerro Grande fire of 2000. Those fires burned more than 10,000 acres of Santa Clara forest. The Las Conchas fire burned some of that area again, he said.

"Now, with 13,000-14,000 acres needing reforestation, we'll need millions of saplings," Bower said. "We have always had a great relationship with the folks at Mora. We are hoping that they can increase the number of saplings beyond what we had requested for this year, and supply many more over the course of the next three to four years." He said the pueblo is also hoping to install a greenhouse so they can begin growing some of their own trees. They have applied for grant money for the purchase of saplings and to meet other reforestation needs.

Other NMSU wildfire recovery support has been in the form of educational presentations.

Ursula Smedly is a natural resources specialist at NMSU's Sustainable Agriculture Science Center at Alcalde, north of Santa Fe. She was involved in working with USDA's Farm Service Agency to put together information meetings about the Disaster Assistance Program for people who were grazing cattle on federal lands and others affected by the drought, the fires and the flooding.

"We held meetings in five communities in Rio Arriba, Sandoval, Santa Fe and Taos counties in mid-August," she said. "About 115 people attended, looking for assistance. Many at our Jemez and Cuba meetings lost cattle in the Las Conchas fire. The post-fire recovery work I've been doing is basically trying to get people connected with what help is out there."

In response to concerns among Pueblo farmers and ranchers about water issues following the Las Conchas fire, Joseph Garcia worked with the New Mexico Environment Department to present a workshop on the effects of residual ash on water. Garcia is an NMSU Extension agent based in Alcalde who works primarily with the 10 southern pueblos. He said the Sept. 29 workshop at the Cochiti Pueblo Conference Center drew about 15 producers. The NMED presenters from the New Mexico Surface Water Quality Board were interested in following up by arranging with producers to monitor water and test soil on affected lands.

Judy Finley is an NMSU Extension agriculture and small business development agent also based at Alcalde. She said a follow-up workshop on the implications of wildfire ash on the soil is being planned for Nov. 10 in Cochiti. The event will feature Robert Flynn, soil expert in NMSU's Department of Extension Plant Sciences and superintendant of the university's Agricultural Science Center at Artesia.

The impact of the Las Conchas fire became a topic of interest at NMSU's inaugural Top of the Valle field day Sept. 24 at the Valles Caldera National Preserve west of Los Alamos. Approximately 30,000 acres of forest and grassland at the 89,000-acre preserve were affected by the fire.

The field day agenda included presentations by NMSU faculty members Nick Ashcroft, Doug Cram and Sam Smallidge, all of whom are members of NMSU's Range Improvement Task Force. Their topics ranged from the general - fire ecology in the Southwest - to more specific issues of post-fire resource recovery and the impact of fires on cattle grazing and wildlife foraging.

According to Smallidge, task force members are frequently called upon to help mediate natural resource conflicts between federal officials and ranchers with federal grazing leases. Smallidge anticipates that following the 2011 fire season, issues such as post-fire range readiness will arise and the task force may be called to bring science to bear in the resolution of management tensions.