Reforestation Center aims to replant trees in northern NM burn scar

Group asks state for funding to help cut centuries off regeneration timeline

By: - July 18, 2022 4:30 am

New growth over Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon burn scar with green plants coming out of the ground. (Benjamin Hale / Public domain photo via the National Wildfire Coordinating Group)

Over 80,000 acres of land are badly charred by the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire, and natural regeneration could take hundreds of years. To drop that timespan to just a decade or two, the New Mexico Reforestation Center wants to replant trees.

What is the Reforestation Center?

Founded earlier this year, the center is a partnership between the N.M. Forestry Division, the Department of Forestry at Highlands University, N.M. State University’s John T. Harrington Forestry Research Center and the University of New Mexico’s Department of Biology.

Owen Burney, director of New Mexico State University’s Forestry Research Center, proposed that the reforestation team could help significantly around the state — if New Mexico and the federal government help adequately fund their work.

Burney presented to the Economic Development & Policy Committee on Friday. The forestry group is still trying to figure out exactly how much funding would be needed from the state, but it could potentially range anywhere from around $500,000 to $3 million to get started, Burney told Source NM.

Replanting seedlings

Fires limit natural regeneration opportunities, damaging layers of soil in a way that prohibits natural regrowth, Burney said. This is why people step in to plant seedlings in burn scars. The young plants grow in nurseries for about six months until they’re a little more than a foot tall, Burney said, and then are transplanted into the forests to mature.

The northern New Mexico burn scar needs anywhere from 12.5 million to 20.9 million seedlings to help regenerate severely burned areas, Burney said. But with so few seedling nurseries focused on the burn scar in northern New Mexico from the largest wildfire in recorded state history, he said regeneration could take hundreds of years.

The NMSU Research Center is the only local seedling producer for New Mexico and Arizona with a capacity for 300,000 seedlings annually, Burney said. The only other producer for New Mexico is the Forest Service’s Lucky Peak Nursery in Idaho, which has a capacity of 1.8 million seedlings per year, but he said they’re mostly focused on a different region of the U.S.

The goal for the New Mexico Reforestation Center is to produce 5 million seedlings annually, which is still short of the forests’ immediate needs but Burney said is “light years ahead of where we are.” With a certain percentage of the center’s seedlings dedicated to just the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon footprint, Burney said it would take around 12 years to grow the seedlings needed for recovery, aiming for the lower end of the estimate range — about 12.5 million.

Millions in federal aid could come soon

The center submitted a grant proposal to the U.S. Department of Agriculture for about $80 million, which would be used for the construction and beginning operations of the center. But recurring funds are still needed for faculty and staff positions, according to a fact sheet.

Burney said whether the group gets these funds will determine how much the center would need from the state. He anticipates they will find out if the center gets the federal funding sometime in the coming months.

Committee chair and Democratic Rep. Antonio Maestas asked how it would be possible for the group to produce millions of seedlings per year, comparing it to NMSU’s current capacity of 300,000. Burney said funding is essential. “That’s not going to happen overnight,” Burney said.

While the center is built and operations are organized at a physical site, Burney said they can at least start collecting seeds. “We can’t do any of this without seed,” he said.

State reforestation efforts should really start as soon as possible, Burney said, but it would likely be at least a decade before the center gets significant work done. 

Republican Sen. Ron Griggs said reforestation shouldn’t be the immediate priority right now, and the errors of the U.S. Forest Service need to be addressed first. He warned that another wildfire disaster like this could happen again tomorrow with even worse results.

“The big evil is the United States Forest Service and their inability to work to improve the health of the forests,” Griggs said.

Grasses sprout in fresh burn scars as residents get their bearings

Other benefits

Burney proposed a number of economic benefits for the state if investments are made in reforestation, including the restoration of wildlife habitats, soils and plants as well as opportunities for commercial products like timber, and recreation such as fishing and skiing.

“Reforestation will benefit both market- and non-market-based values for the state,” Burney said.

Griggs voiced some concern about the ability to harvest burned trees, which is something he said the Forest Service doesn’t readily allow industries to do, resulting in a loss of the state’s sawmills.

A preliminary economic analysis by Highlands University predicts that over a 30-year period, there would be $1.25 billion generated in economic benefits from the center’s restoration if $482 million were spent on the effort.

And there’s another benefit, too: trees suck in carbon, Burney pointed out, which could help fight global warming. He said this is “the largest natural pathway to capture carbon and to mitigate climate change.”

“We know with all the seedlings that we need to plant,” Burney said, “there is an excellent opportunity for us as a tool to capture a ton of carbon through these reforestation efforts.”


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Megan Gleason
Megan Gleason

Megan Gleason is a journalist based in Albuquerque. She recently graduated from the University of New Mexico, where she served as the editor-in-chief of the Daily Lobo. Other work has appeared under the New Mexico Press Association as well as in the Independent, Gallup Sun and Silver City Daily Press.