By Karin Stangl
New Mexico State Land Commissioner Ray Powell made a public announcement last week that fireworks, open fires, and smoking are prohibited on state trust lands until further notice.
“Severe drought conditions coupled with high winds, and dense fuel loads can combine to produce catastrophic fires like we saw last year in New Mexico,” said Commissioner Powell. “It is important to do what we can to prevent human-caused fires on our state trust lands.”
In 2011, fires, such as the Las Conchas Fire and the Track Fire, which both burned on state trust lands, demonstrate a trend of increasingly large and potential severe fires in our state. Last year, more than 3,000 acres of forest on state trust land burned at high severity. About 140,000 acres of state trust land were impacted by fire during 2011 with a majority of acreage in grasslands. More than 110,000 acres were impacted by human-caused fires.
“Healthy forests and grasslands ensure healthy watersheds, wildlife habitat, sustainable agriculture, a viable tourism industry, and a high quality of life for all New Mexicans. It is important that each of us takes responsibility for protecting the health of our natural world by being responsible stewards of our land, and this is particularly important during severe drought conditions,” said Powell.
Powell appealed to agricultural lessees to maintain a clear area around improvements, such as buildings and structures, from debris and excessive dry and flammable materials and to avoid open flames during windy conditions. He also appealed to lessees to use extreme caution when driving motorized vehicles in areas with dry vegetation.
Efforts on state trust land are ongoing to reduce forest fuels and risk of high severity fires, while improving ecosystem function and health. Over the past two years, more than 4,000 acres of state trust land were treated with prescriptive tree thinning programs.
In 2012, the State Land Office requested $890,000 in legislative funding for tree thinning programs to continue over the next two years. The request did not pass. Since then, increased oil and gas lease revenues have helped the agency’s revenues to exceed original projections. About $200,000 will be gleaned from the Land Maintenance Fund to cover tree-thinning efforts this year. Since fuel reduction treatments will need to continue, the agency will again ask the 2013 State Legislature for money to fund tree-thinning programs.
Collaboration between the State Land Office, State Forestry, the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service and the New Mexico Association of Counties will continue to address measures to reduce wildfire risk statewide.