Lawmakers and local loggers laid into the U.S. Forest Service at a meeting on Friday, seeking better management of forests in New Mexico to prevent future catastrophic wildfires.
The Economic and Rural Development and Policy Committee invited a few people from the logging industry who are based in southern New Mexico to speak about forest health and thinning needs on Friday in Silver City.
Andrew Ortiz, owner of AOK Forestry, said New Mexico’s forests are overgrown and at risk of wildfires, something that’s become a prominent concern in the state after last year’s severe wildfire season.
“We’re coming to you today with another warning,” Ortiz said. “And our hope is that you will not wait until the damage is done to take action on these matters.”
He said logging could act as a solution, but the industry faces barriers from the U.S. Forest Service, the agency that manages the state’s national forests.
The U.S. Forest Service has voiced an intent to take advantage of thinning forests to prevent wildfires. The agency has been sued repeatedly over logging proposals, including a recent lawsuit filed by conservation groups against its plans near Yellowstone National Park with concerns about dangers for threatened or endangered species.
Environmental advocates have argued against logging in New Mexico specifically, too, saying it hurts ecosystems and deters wildfires which, most of the time, are healthy for forests.
These points were largely absent from Friday’s discussion.
Ortiz asked legislators to step in to make changes where they’re able to help with local forest management through logging.
“We understand that national forests are federally managed, but the health of the forest and our state impacts your constituents,” he said.
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The state’s anti-donation clause is one area he said could be amended to help. The law doesn’t normally allow state funds to go to individuals, but Ortiz asked the lawmakers to explore avenues to deliver grants to loggers, which could help buy materials or equipment.
Sen. Crystal Diamond Brantley (R-Elephant Butte) said lawmakers could look into allocating money from funds that are already set up, like the recently created Legacy Fund that sends money to land and water programs.
Russell Laney, owner of Timber Tramp Logging, said more funding could go to the Forestry Division, which is part of the state’s Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department. He said there are some issues with contracting through that division.
Diamond Brentley and Rep. Gail Armstrong (R-Magdalena) said they want to look into the contracting delays Laney said he’s experienced with the state.
“If we’re not even managing this correctly at the state level, I’m going to personally look into why as we watch our state burn down around us,” Armstrong said.
Ortiz said there are also issues with how little forest access the Forest Service gives for logging and how the agency conducts specific sales.
Diamond Brantley said many of these problems stem from failed management by the U.S. Forest Service that the state can’t do much about.
Lawmakers passed a bill in the 2023 legislative session that banned prescribed burns during red flag warnings, which signal extreme weather conditions that can lead to out-of-control fires. The U.S. Forest Service hasn’t followed that state law since it’s a federal agency.
Sen. Ron Griggs (R-Alamogordo) said the bill was more about sending a message to the Forest Service that the agency needs to do its job correctly.
Looking to the future, Rep. Tara Lujan (D-Santa Fe) said the state will need another recovery-related bill or plan to deal with the wildfires that will just keep coming amid climate change. She said solutions will take policy.
Ortiz agreed. He said homes and livelihoods will continue to be lost if nothing changes.
“Either decisions are made, or the forest is going to burn,” he said.
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