Photo Credit: Dr. Tom Swetnam from the University of Arizona Tree Ring Laboratory inspects a fire scarred tree stump in the Carson National Forest.

It was a clear sunny day in September when I drove north from Santa Fe to Questa, New Mexico to meet with Ron Gardiner. Ron is leading an update of the 2009 Taos County Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP). The small town of Questa is dominated by the 1996 Hondo Fire scar, which burned the entire mountain face east of town. Ron began our conversation discussing his history with that fire and its watershed effects.

It was in the shadow of the Hondo Fire scar, now a mountainside covered in oak, locust, mountain mahogany and aspen–and almost devoid of conifers–that Ron described his watershed-based perspective on community, water use, planning and wildfire. This perspective developed over many years as a wilderness ranger, staff to a state representative charged with negotiating water issues, and a member of the Hondo Fire rehabilitation team.

Taos Valley Watershed Coalition partners examine fire scars with Dr. Tom Swetnam. Photo Credit: Garret VeneKlasen

Taos Valley Watershed Coalition partners examine fire scars with Dr. Tom Swetnam. Photo Credit: Garrett VeneKlasen

In 2008, Ron was brought in to re-write the 2007 Taos County CWPP, written by an out-of-state contractor. It was not accepted by New Mexico Fire Planning Task Force. That led Taos County to contract with Ron to lead the re-write effort, which produced the 2009 Taos County CWPP Update. Though labeled as an update, it was an extensive overhaul, and was driven by the core team that has been active in the intervening six years. This activity has included: a strong cost-share program by the Soil and Water Conservation District, the establishment of several Firewise communities, creation of two community-level CWPPs (Questa and Taos Pueblo), establishment of a part-time county-wide WUI coordinator position, and a successfully completed non-federal land (NFL) grant from State Forestry focused on private lands.

Despite all these positive developments since the 2009 CWPP Update, the core team recognized that at six years old, their plan needed to be refreshed. With another small grant from the New Mexico Association of Counties to Taos County, Ron is again leading the core team through a CWPP update.

This update is unique in that it is organizing community risk by watershed, described by Ron as a “WUI Watershed Inventory.” Ron’s rationale is that most of the resource-based communities in Taos County have deep connections to their watershed through their agricultural sector that used, or still use, the acequia (ditch) irrigation system. The acequia system uses a complex series of ditches and feeder ditches to deliver precious surface water to agricultural users. It also allocates water and maintains the system through democratic community cooperation.

While wildfires can and do cross watershed boundaries, post-wildfire effects such as flooding, erosion and sedimentation do not, unless they travel down from a smaller watershed to a larger one. So in this approach, the CWPP will both evaluate and address each communities risk and organize communities and wildland-urban interface areas by watershed. Each community needs to pursue the planning and mitigation efforts that best address its needs. But, when they do experience wildfire, they will experience post-wildfire effects together as residents of one watershed.

After we discussed his watershed framework for the update, I was able to share with Ron some lessons from the FAC Net. We discussed home-site risk assessment used by many across the country, the need to establish a recovery team that prepares for fires and mobilizes during an incident, and the need to proactively plan for managing future burned areas. As it turns out, Ron’s watershed approach will dovetail nicely with these FAC Net post-fire lessons learned.

We then turned to the recent award from the Rio Grande Water Fund  to accelerate NEPA planning on Forest Service and Taos Pueblo land. A sub-committee of the CWPP update core team developed the Taos Valley Restoration Coalition Landscape Restoration Strategy. The restoration strategy for Taos canyon, with its wide array of signatories, was one factor that helped the coalition secure this award. Another factor was the consensus and relationship-building that occurred through the field meetings convened by Garrett VeneKlasen of the New Mexico Wildlife Federation this past summer. These meetings were convened to develop agreement about what a large-scale restoration project, largely on Taos Pueblo and Carson National Forest lands would look like.

Taken as a whole, efforts in Taos County are impressive and are certainly one of the prime examples of pursuing fire adapted communities in New Mexico.

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