Logging after NM wildfires could help forests but won’t likely happen for months, if at all

Environmentalists warn about dangers of the practice, but proponents are racing a deadline before logging becomes economically worthless

By: - August 22, 2022 5:00 am

Trees and stumps burned from the Black Fire stand further apart from each other in the Gila National forest on July 28, 2022 due to past logging operations in the area. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)

There’s a potential boost for New Mexico’s economy and forests through logging, especially after the severe fire season the state endured this summer. But it’ll probably be months before any action could be taken, if at all, to cut and process the trees burned by historic fire destruction.

The two largest wildfires in the state’s history — the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire in the north and the Black Fire in the south — torched hundreds of thousands of acres in New Mexico this year. Crews are working on rehabilitation measures for both fires, but logging work isn’t happening yet.

James Youtz is a U.S. Forest Service silviculturist for the southwest region and makes plans about how to manage forests in a healthy way. He said crews are focused on emergency rehab for the forest and public safety measures right now, like reducing hazards from falling debris or areas overflowing with water.

Logging, if officials choose to do it, would probably happen closer to fall, he said. But the decision to do so depends on a number of factors, including environmental concerns and a diminished sawmill market in New Mexico.

What’s the process?

There are multiple federal laws in the process that the state and U.S. Forest Service has to adhere to around logging, many of which hold environmental protections. In addition, each national forest has management plans that limit how much timber can be harvested, Youtz said.

The National Environmental Policy Act is one such significant policy he brought up that officials have to go through in order to get logging projects approved. It’s a monthslong process where agencies evaluate the environmental consequences of proposed logging actions and allow public input.

But there’s a time constraint on harvesting trees after fires burn them. Dead trees are good for about three years before they’re economically worthless, Youtz said. It can vary depending on the timber’s intended use, he added, but the highest value is within the first year. However, the administrative processes make it unlikely to happen within a year, he said.

Collin Haffey, forest and watershed health coordinator with the N.M. Forestry Division, said factors like rain, insects, bacteria and fungus can cause timber to become useless. But in the aftermath of large blazes like the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire, he said, salvage logging can make room for native plants or restoration, preventing future fires from burning out of control.

Conversations about if logging will be done or not in the large New Mexico fires are ongoing, Haffey said.

Clumps of dead trees stand together on July 28, 2022 in the Gila after being burned by the Black Fire. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)

Controversy around cutting down the trees

There’s a need for thinning trees in forests in general because they’re overly dense, Youtz said, which the Forest Service is trying to do. The forests are full of smaller trees, though, he said, and those aren’t historically as economically valuable for loggers.

But Andrew Ortiz, operations manager at Timber Tramp Logging in southern N.M., said newer lumber companies are working with trees of all sizes so the forests stay healthy. Removing only large trees can damage forest ecosystems since they absorb carbon dioxide and provide habitats for some animals.

“There’s a very negative connotation to logging. Really what it is is we’re pro-forest restoration. That’s what we want to do,” Ortiz said. “We’re not in this to do commercial setting the way we used to see it.”

Not everyone agrees, though, including John Horning, executive director of the nonprofit environmental organization WildEarth Guardians. Having been in New Mexico for 30 years, he said, he’s seen places like the Jemez Mountains and the Gila National forest transformed for the worse because trees have been cut down. 

“It completely transformed the landscape from a wild, cool, lush place with a pretty little stream running through it to a hotter, drier landscape with lots of stumps,” Horning said.

He said the Forest Service doesn’t need to salvage log to prevent future fires because fire is largely a good thing for the forests, and the Forest Service should invest more money in adapting to it rather than preventing it. Even with the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire and Black Fire, a majority of the land wasn’t severely burned, he said, and low to moderate burning is “natural and normal.” 

“We’re not going to fireproof our forests, so we need to learn to coexist with fire,” he said.

Horning said all logging, not just after fires, hurts ecosystems by allowing more noxious weeds and invasive plants to grow. He said it also destroys old-growth forests that some species live in, like the Mexican spotted owl or the Jemez Mountains salamander. Plus, he added, the mature trees help fight climate change with their carbon absorption.

Logging controversy stems from people wanting to make commercial or private gains from forests, Horning said, despite negative outcomes. “Whether that’s a political or personal agenda, yeah, there are those who want to profit from our national forests,” he said.

The issue has indeed made its way into politics across the country, with Republicans generally supporting it while Democrats veer in the opposite direction and are more concerned with the environmental dangers.

But Ortiz said the Forest Service needs to “get it together quickly” to allow logging, which he said is necessary to prevent catastrophic fire outcomes in the future. He called the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire a devastating wildfire that the U.S. Forest Service started in already risky conditions.

“Salvage logging needs to occur after a fire,” Ortiz said. “It has to happen. If it doesn’t, it’ll burn again.”

Ortiz also spoke to the economic benefits. Local businesses can sell the timber, he said, and New Mexicans still have cost-effective product choices, such as vegas for adobe houses.

Skyrocketing wood prices

The cost of wood products almost quadrupled in the first year of the pandemic alone, the Forest Service found. Plywood wholesale prices (per thousand square feet) rose from $500 to $1,500.

“You go to Lowe’s or Home Depot and you’re going to spend an arm and a leg on lumber there,” he said. “You come to Timber Tramp and, you know, we try to keep our cost as low as possible, or we’ll refer them to the lumber yards that we sell to in Albuquerque because it is much more cost-effective.”

There’s a limited market for logging in New Mexico, though. Sawmills have been in decline for decades in the state, Haffey said, due to stricter laws around logging and fewer larger trees available. But there’s been a resurgence of local sawmills lately, he remarked, though many don’t have industrial capacities.

The process could also clean up roads that have been damaged by flooding in the forests since loggers need to clean up the pathways to get to the timber. This can help people living or working in the forests, but Haffey said the heavy equipment can also damage charred soil, which is vulnerable to erosion.

“Salvage logging can be a tool, a management tool, for keeping roads open, supporting local economies,” Haffey said, “and, you know, just getting some of that usable and valuable wood out before it falls in and just kind of rots away.”

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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.