Editors’ Note: This week’s blog from Ch’aska Huayhuaca, Rachel Bean and Mike Caggiano was originally published April 28, 2022 on the Northern Colorado Fireshed Collaborative site. Ch’aska and Michael are Research Associates with the Colorado Forest Restoration Institute at Colorado State University. Rachel Bean is a Southwest Project Coordinator with the Forest Stewards Guild. In this blog, they detail some insightful similarities between two different major firesheds represented at the Medio Fire Learning Exchange, which took place in Santa Fe, New Mexico. FAC Net acknowledges the serious wildfire incidents currently ongoing in New Mexico, and offers this blog as an opportunity for learning more about fire management in the area. Header photo by Rachel Bean.
Staff from the Southwest Ecological Restoration Institute (SWERI) recently attended the Medio Fire Learning Exchange at Pacheco Canyon, north of Santa Fe, New Mexico. The event, which coincided with three major wildfires burning in the vicinity, was co-hosted by the Forest Stewards Guild, Pueblo of Tesuque, Santa Fe National Forest (SFNF) and NM Department of Game and Fish, all of whom are partners of the Greater Santa Fe Fireshed Coalition (GSFFC). In addition to the cohosts, other GSFFC partners on the trip included our sister SWERI, the New Mexico Forest and Watershed Restoration Institute. The event was funded by the Fire Adapted New Mexico Learning Network (FAC NM).
The learning exchange featured a tour showcasing treatments within the fateful 2019 Pacheco Canyon Forest Resiliency Project. Partners of the GSFFC had collaboratively planned and implemented a 500-acre mechanical treatment and a subsequent prescribed burn along a POD boundary. Coincidentally, a year later, the 2020 Medio Fire ignited in the adjacent Rio Nambe drainage and grew rapidly, pushed by dry gusty winds over steep and heavily wooded terrain. As it burned southeast toward culturally significant ancestral lands of the Tesuque Pueblo and important recreation assets at the Santa Fe Ski Basin, firefighters were able to utilize the strategically located Pacheco Canyon fuel break and initiate a burn out along the treatment’s edge, helping to slow and eventually contain the fire. The collaboratively designed and implemented treatments, which were planned and carried out over a period of several years, provided an anchor for firefighters as they focused containment efforts on the southern edge to prevent the fire from burning into the Santa Fe watershed.
Focusing on this multi-year effort that ultimately facilitated a strategic response during the Medio Fire allowed participants and stakeholders to share successes and challenges in cooperatively implementing cross-jurisdictional land management projects. This included leveraging creative funding sources and strategies for engaging with dissenters unsupportive of forest restoration and wildfire risk reduction projects. For Colorado Forest Restoration Institute staff members Mike Caggiano and Ch’aska Huayhuaca, who respectively participate in and coordinate the Northern Colorado Fireshed Collaborative (NCFC), it was an excellent opportunity for cross-Fireshed peer learning. While there are many contextual differences between the two Fireshed collaboratives with regards to their social and ecological landscapes and the lessons learned may not translate directly, some compelling themes and similarities emerged.
Theme 1: The Importance of Implementation at Scale
Both GSFFC and NCFC were created in response to large, destructive, unplanned fires that led stakeholders to recognize the importance of scale. Individual stakeholders treating a few hundred acres here and there was not going to be effective for changing landscape-scale wildfire behavior and damaging outcomes. The scale of action needs to be commensurate with the scale of disturbance; or put simply, big fires require big treatments. Both collaboratives struggle with the dual challenge of not being able to mechanically treat at a sufficient scale, while also often needing to implement mechanical treatments prior to using prescribed fire safely. The collaboratively developed implementation strategy at the heart of the Pacheco Canyon Forest Resiliency Project addressed this problem by creatively planning, funding and implementing mechanical treatments to facilitate subsequent prescribed fire treatments, which in turn improved their ability to manage wildland fire and reduce its detrimental effects when the Medio Fire came through.
This project was the result of years of trust building, capacity development and interagency cooperation. Repeated in-person connections and, importantly, time spent in the woods together discussing values and priorities all helped to foster trust among key partners. As one participant said, “an hour in the field is worth 10 hours in a meeting and 20 on Zoom.” A Memorandum of Understanding between the Pueblo of Tesuque and the SFNF was essential for coordinating efforts to train tribal crews and cooperatively thin and burn the area. This interagency cooperation spurred progress and provided work-arounds when one partner faced internal barriers to getting work done quickly, maintaining momentum. Mike Martinez of the Pueblo of Tesuque commented that collaboration for him meant not settling for “no” when stumbling blocks appear: “Collaboration is finding a way forward, saying yes to your partners, and just showing up.” A recently completed categorical exclusion, a five-year plan of work and shovel-ready projects all contributed to this successful project.
Theme 2: The Role of Science
Locally-relevant science is central to both Fireshed groups. Both benefit from access to boundary-spanning organizations and partners with scientific knowledge and expertise to inform priorities (e.g., see the GSFFC’s 2018 Watershed Risk Assessment here), support on-the-ground work and legitimize partnerships and projects. Ecological and social science provides context and facilitates conversations between stakeholders about diverse priorities, values at risk (such as clean air and water, cultural resources, wildlife and recreation) and the best way to safeguard them. T he key for both collaboratives appears to be ensuring that science is inserted into planning and outreach activities appropriately, while staying nimble in the face of increasingly frequent fire, since science can be slow to catch up. Both groups suggested the desire for more data should not slow down action. Science provides information to help interpret what we are seeing with land management and wildland fire but cannot always tell you exactly what needs to be done. The SFNF Fuels Planning Specialist Dennis Carrol pointed to the importance of maintaining frequent dialogue between science partners and land managers as a way of learning, negotiating and striking a balance.
Theme 3: Coordinated Community Engagement
The third theme that emerged as common to both groups was the approach of meeting communities where they are in terms of social understanding, acceptance, support for forest management and the reintroduction of fire on the landscape. Unlike the NCFC, whose Community Engagement and Outreach committee coordinates on shared messaging and coordinated activities between connected partners in individual watersheds, the GSFFC acts as both a platform for coordination and as a community connector. They have tailored their outreach strategy to connect with communities with different levels of social understanding, acceptance, readiness and support for prescribed fire projects. They do this by identifying community spark plugs and focusing on community-relevant values. For example, they co-led a GSFFC “Roadshow,” a series of after-hours community meetings to talk about prescribed fire in different communities. Organizers recalled, “sometimes we packed the house, sometimes very few showed up, sometimes there were protesters; but either way it’s important just to show up and be there.” An early project was developing a Fireshed-themed beer, and they built on that momentum with a series of “Brewshed” events to encourage engagement and integrate science into community conversations and build knowledge among stakeholders. They also hosted a “Common Ground Town Hall” to engage with dissenters in science-informed conversation.
The NCFC and GSFFC were both identified as two of the priority Firesheds in the USFS 10-year Strategy and both are preparing to ramp up capacity and action. In addition, both are preparing for increased funding, but also the increased attention and scrutiny that will likely come with this national initiative. As the frequency of destructive landscape scale fire accelerates, learning exchanges like this one will be increasingly important for stakeholders to adapt, learn and develop resilience, both for the landscapes themselves and the collaboratives charged with their protection. Learning exchange participants left with a greater understanding that there is no one-size-fits-all solution to living well with fire. Successful strategies include but are not limited to effective and targeted community outreach, field-based learning, building scientific literacy, embracing difficult conversations and planning strategically to treat at scale. Large landscapes in particular, with their diverse ecologies, diverse perspectives, and diverse community values require strong and sustained collaboration and multi pronged approaches.
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