Trees burned by the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire stand in Mora County in September 2022. Colfax County, where the thinning work with the grant dollars will be done, is northeast of this. (Photo by Megan Gleason / Source NM)
Trying to protect a northern New Mexico watershed from disasters, a small nonprofit in Colfax County recently got a nearly $10 million grant from the federal government for thinning projects that’ll help reduce the risk of wildfires.
The Inflation Reduction Act provided the dollars necessary to make the Community Wildfire Defense Grant Program possible. With a total of 100 projects, there are 22 states and seven Native American tribes that will cumulatively receive $197 million.
There were 25 applicants from New Mexico, five of which got funding. Communities in low-income areas, recently impacted by disasters or in locations at high risk for wildfires were prioritized, said U.S. Forest Service spokesperson Wade Muehlhof.
The Cimarron Watershed Alliance got most of the funding allocated to New Mexico, snagging grants totaling $9.8 million. The money will be used for forest restoration projects in private communities northeast of Taos.
Rick Smith is the executive director of the Cimarron Watershed Alliance. He’s the only staff member on board. He expects at least one other to join in and the group already is supported by dozens of volunteers.
“It’s a pretty scary thing to do, for a rural watershed group to attempt to implement millions of dollars of forest restoration,” he said.
The funding will be broken up between two projects on private land: there’s $8 million for work in nine unincorporated communities in Moreno Valley, and another $1.8 million for wildfire prevention efforts on a private ranch along the Taos County Line, also in Moreno Valley.
The goal is to reduce fuels, like dead trees or shrubs, that wildfires could suck up and build intensity with. Smith said the projects will likely take around two to five years to finish, with work getting underway this summer.
Smith said this northern region of the state is susceptible to wildfires because forest land in the area hasn’t burned regularly enough. He said forests need fire to stay healthy.
Nature does need periodic burning, according to National Geographic, because certain plants and animals depend on the regular fires and prescribed burns can lessen the intensity of wildfires that get out of control.
“A forest fire needs fire pretty regularly to stay clean,” Smith said. “And if you don’t have fire in the forest pretty regularly, it gets pretty nasty.”
The 2022 Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire, New Mexico’s largest wildfire, was a result of two prescribed burns the U.S. Forest Service lit in extreme weather conditions, one of the rare instances of a Forest Service prescribed burn getting out of control.
A ‘disorganized’ grant process for a small organization
The Cimarron Watershed Alliance needed grant money to pay staffers to apply for the federal wildfire grant. Smith said financial help from the Turner Foundation, Santa Fe Community Foundation and Thornburg Foundation made those dollars available.
Other organizations that didn’t apply would’ve run into that funding issue, too.
Morika Vorenberg Hensley is the executive director of the Santa Fe Watershed Association. She said she’d heard of the federal wildfire prevention program but didn’t go for it so communities more severely hit by the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire could get more dollars.
But even if her organization did try to get the grant money, she said, the group probably would’ve struggled with having the experienced staff needed to fulfill the grant application. She questioned if her organization would have the capacity to complete the application process.
“We don’t have anyone on staff who’s an expert in federal grants or even state grants really,” she said. “I have a little bit of experience, but it is kind of a daunting task to even learn about all the requirements and the deadlines and all of that.”
Smith said applying for the grant itself was confusing, and the process is still messy. The biggest grant the Cimarron Watershed Alliance has gotten in the past was around $200,000, he said, so this is a new process to navigate and figure out.
“It was a pretty disorganized mess, and it’s still a disorganized mess,” he said.
There are also other issues with the Cimarron grant.
All of these Wildfire Defense funding opportunities include a cost share requirement, and Smith said his $9.8 million grants require a 20% match. That would amount to $1.96 million in matching funds from the Cimarron Watershed Alliance. Smith said his organization couldn’t afford to pay all of that.
Underserved communities that don’t have the resources to meet this funding match can apply for a waiver, which Smith said the Cimarron Watershed Alliance has done. He said he doesn’t know if that was accepted yet and is not sure when he’ll hear back about it from the federal government.
If his request for a waiver is denied, Smith said the private landowners would probably have to provide some type of match, like contributing resources to use for the work or just paying upfront.
“If we don’t get the waiver, I don’t have a plan,” he said. “I don’t know what we’ll do.”
The work will be affecting a diverse range of people. Smith said in Moreno Valley, there are retirees, wealthier people with secondary homes, land managed by tribal entities and people renting out housing.
“It literally is all over the board as far as the type of people and the type of properties,” he said.
This is just the first round of funding for the Community Wildfire Defense Grant Program. Right now, there is not yet a timeline for when the next round of applications opens up. Smith said his association will keep “going after as much money as we can get” to scale up forest restoration efforts.
“We don’t have a choice,” he said.
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