Southern NM struggles to receive funds for damage caused by Black Fire

Other fires in the state soak up federal dollars, which local officials say is fair. But there are costly damage in and around the Gila

By: - July 25, 2022 4:34 am

An array of trees charred all the way to the top with few needles left show where the Black Fire and associated backburns were the hottest in Gila National Forest. (Photo by Shelby Wyatt for Source NM)

The Black Fire’s destructive effects still linger in the rural communities in southern New Mexico, and how these small counties and individuals will pay for recovery is still largely uncertain.

Commission chair Jim Paxon from Sierra County talked to the Legislative Finance Committee last week about infrastructure damage caused by the fire, and repairs the counties and their people are struggling to cover.

Lack of federal funding

The Burned Area Rehabilitation fund provides assistance for charred landscapes that aren’t likely to recover without human assistance, according to the Department of the Interior. But all of those funds are going to other fires in the state, including the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire, Paxon said.

“That was a much more severe fire on the landscape. Plus, it affected a whole lot more people,” Paxon told Source NM. “We didn’t have any communities affected. It was just the individual ranchers and the structures that were lost were all on national forest lands — cabins and that sort of thing. And so our resulting risk to the communities is lessened. But still, it’s still there.”

Nearly all of the Black Fire burned on federal land, but ranches that use U.S. Forest Service land for grazing were damaged, too, and Paxon urged the legislative committee to put some pressure on the Forest Service to cover those costs. He said the legislative committee or even the Governor’s Office can put more political pressure on the Forest Service than the individual counties can for infrastructure damage to get repaired.

“I would ask and exhort you to apply all the pressure you can, because they are going to have to respond — especially if it’s unified and united,” Paxon said.

The legislative subcommittee plans to draft a letter to give to the full committee about the Forest Service’s role in managing federal land and resulting infrastructure damage from disasters. Paxon also talked with U.S. Rep. Yvette Herrell’s office recently, who are investigating if there’s a way to get Forest Service funds to be directly applied to the victims of the Black Fire.

“We’re going to continue to put pressure on and see if there’s not a way to get them to redeem their responsibilities,” Paxon told Source NM. “This isn’t an adversarial situation. It’s trying to get support so they can get the dollars to the ground.”

Ranchers’ struggles

While there aren’t many people living in the area where the Black Fire blazed, Paxon said five ranchers specifically had substantial damage to their lands. Sierra County and the National Resources Conservation Service requested that the ranchers assess their damage, which they’re trying to do, Paxon said, but the size of the ranch and the extent of the damage on their ranches determine how long that takes.

So far, ranchers have found damaged fences, water pipes and tubs, and solar technology, he said. About 600 to 700 cattle between the five ranches have been displaced by the fire.

Fences are an especially prevalent issue because the U.S. Forest Service won’t let the cattle graze unless they’re contained on a grazing-permitted pasture, Paxon said, but fences are expensive to fix. He said just one mile of fencing costs around $20,000-30,000 to replace in those rural areas. “With no fences, that means they’re not going to allow those cows back on,” he said.

A burned fence post and barbed wire from June show damage at one of the ranches hit by the Black Fire. (Photo by Shelby Wyatt for Source NM)

Paxon brought up rancher Jack Diamond, who installed new fences last year that would have lasted decades. But after being damaged by the fire, about 20 miles need to be replaced, Paxon said. Diamond would likely have to hire someone to fix that, he said, and material costs are expensive, on top of the expense of just transporting them out there.

“It seems to be much more equitable if the Forest Service paid for the contract to bring a contractor in and built that fence and materials fees,” Paxon told Source.

But time is of the essence to get the cows back on the pastures, he said, as monsoon season allows the grass to grow for grazing, and planting seeds needs to happen while the soil is wet from the rains.

Sen. George Muñoz (D-Gallup) suggested that the ranchers try to get funds from the emergency declaration Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham declared on Sierra County in early June, which provided $750,000 to the Department of Homeland Security and Emergency Management for repairs and future damage prevention. 

Conversations are ongoing with the department’s Deputy Secretary Kelly Hamilton to see if this would be possible, and while Paxon said he hopes for an answer soon, nothing is definitive yet.

Another potential avenue of funding Paxon has looked into is through the local Soil and Water Conservation District, which is ready to sponsor the five ranchers, Paxon said. Rep. Nathan Small (D-Las Cruces) suggested setting aside more state funding for the Soil and Water Conservation Districts, which Rep. Patricia Lundstrom (D-Gallup) backed up.

But Muñoz said there can be limitations with the conservation districts because they would be spending state funding on federal land, which can get dicey.

Paxon fears that ranchers could be forced to sell their cattle or leave the business if they can’t afford all these repairs. 

“It is very stressful on our livestock producers,” Paxon said. “The future is so uncertain that it’s causing them a lot of angst.”

A lot of these ranchers survive year to year financially, he said, and costs add up through feed, gas and groceries, and just trying to make ends meet.

If they have to move cows and don’t have calves to sell, then they probably don’t have enough money to go grocery shopping next year. Some of those outfits, as we’re all aware, they’re hand-to-mouth, year-to-year. Without being able to generate a profit, they’re just simply not in business next year.

– Jim Paxon, Sierra County Commission

Counties’ economic uncertainties

Some of the counties are facing economic difficulties as well.

Chris Ponce, the commissioner for Grant County, said monsoon rains pushed ash and debris from the fire to roads and a lot of money from the county’s budget is going toward clearing it. Because they’re county roads, it’s the county’s responsibility to fix them and not the Forest Service, regardless of the burn scar intensifying the runoff issue.

Another economic issue stems from tourist sites that could be shut down because of flooding. 

In rural communities like Grant County, people rely on tourism to boost the economy, Ponce said. But he fears what would happen to Grant County’s economy if the risk of flooding forced campgrounds and other areas to start shutting down, which hasn’t happened yet.

“What do we have here in Grant County? We have the Gila National Forest,” Ponce said.

Sierra County also depends on tourism, and Paxon said a lot of people visit the county to hunt in the Gila. But if things start shutting down, he said the county is worried about being able to “draw people in” on its limited budget.

“We’ve seen this fire change things,” Paxon said. “Change is not permanent, but it’s going to be many years before we recover, and we’re apprehensive about what the future holds economically.”


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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.