Feds begin air-dropping seeds and mulch over the burn scar in northern NM

Natural Resource Conservation Service foots the whole bill for watershed protection program

By: - September 22, 2022 4:30 am

The NRCS will be dropping seeds from helicopters and mulch from planes onto burnt private land through October. (Photo courtesy of Kenneth Branch, provided by Cameron Stallings of Aerotech Inc.)

Watersheds have been threatened and damaged for months by the largest wildfire in the state’s recorded history and the flooding that followed. This week, the Natural Resources Conservation Service got a start on land restoration, dropping seeds by helicopter and mulch by plane onto private land.

The Emergency Watershed Protection Program is a federal recovery project that aims to protect life and property after natural disasters. The NRCS, an agency under the U.S. Department of Agriculture, started the program up in Mora and San Miguel Counties following the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire.

And the agency will do more than flyovers. The program includes cleanup of damaged regions, as well as building flood-prevention structures.

Mora County still struggling amid flooding disasters

The state is sponsoring the project and would normally have to pay for construction, but the NRCS is picking up the full bill this time. The program is funded as part of $133 million secured from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, money that’s committed for recovery from the wildfire and flooding in New Mexico.

This is part of the federal efforts to cover all wildfire-related cleanup costs into November for the blaze that the U.S. Forest Service started by losing control of one prescribed burn and failing to make sure another was fully extinguished.

The first part of the emergency watershed program started this week with aerial seeding and mulching of private land. Crews will make the drops through October, and the NRCS has gotten permission from owners to do so over about 20,000 acres of land so far. Another 20,000 private acres qualify based on location and how badly burned the area is, but the agency can’t act without permission of the property owners.

Kenneth Branch is an assistant state conservationist working on the watershed project in the affected counties. He said some of the seed is coming from the city of Las Vegas, N.M., and the mulch is coming from the burn scar. “It’s all going to be from harvested material that this fire created, basically,” he said.

Not everyone is on board, though. Local contractor Jake Lovato questioned the aerial method, saying the seeds and mulch will land far and wide unintentionally after being dropped from above. Chacon resident Sherri Moravec said she plans to record the process, upload it on YouTube and charge the feds if anything goes wrong.

But Mora County Commissioner Veronica Serna said she’s excited because this project is the first step to bringing the land back to life. “After that comes reforestation,” she said.

The next phase of the federal program will begin in a few weeks, Branch said, where the NRCS will design and build structures — like diversions, sediment basins and trash racks — to protect people and catch debris from the flash-floods that wash over a burn scar after a wildfire. 

Concrete barriers are put in place to protect against flooding off the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon burn scar. This area in Mora County is near where Benjamin Torres died in a flash flood in August 2022. Pictured on Wednesday, Sept. 14, 2022. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)

NRCS spokesperson Leonard Luke Luna said the agency will clean up land and property damaged by erosion, removing debris from stream channels, culverts and bridges. Staff will also reshape banks, and fix drainage facilities and levees.

Property owners with structures that are at risk for flooding or already damaged can talk to the Tierra y Montes and Western Mora Soil and Water Conservation Districts — some of the project sponsors — to sign up to have NRCS evaluate their land, Branch said. After assessment, crews will make site-specific protective recommendations.

There are about 20-25 people working on one site at a time, he said, pulling from the 130 NRCS personnel working statewide. Out-of-state agency staff have been brought to New Mexico to speed things up, Branch added.

Even with all the extra help the NRCS has pulled together, it still may take some time to get it all going, though, Branch warned.

“It’s just so big, and there’s just so many people that have been affected that we’re working as fast as we can,” Branch said.

Like everything else in government, Serna said, it’s a slow process. The county will be recovering for the next five to 10 years though, so work being done now is important, she remarked.

“The efforts that are made now,” Serna said, “will definitely prove vital in the years to come.”


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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.