Ledes from the Land of Enchantment

Seeding the future –

Jose Ibarra plants ponderosa pine seedlings on Oct. 11 in an area burned by the 2011 Las Conchas Fire in the Jemez Mountains. The trees were grown at the state’s Mora forestry center, and had to be relocated this year because of the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire. (Eddie Moore/)

Copyright © 2022

On a cool fall morning in the Jemez Mountains, a forestry crew unloads a trailer full of ponderosa pine seedlings.

Aspens with bright yellow leaves are thriving in this part of the Las Conchas burn scar.

But the area burned by the 2011 blaze is so vast that other trees may never regrow on their own.

To help reforest this area, the crew loads up buckets of foot-tall seedlings and gets to work.

Chad Brown, the Santa Clara Pueblo forest development and restoration manager, keeps track of which plots have been planted.

“We’ve been able to pick out these areas and determine that, in 100 years, they will be the best suitable areas for these trees to grow, with climate change in mind,” he said.

More than 30,000 ponderosa pine and Douglas fir seedlings are being planted across Santa Clara Pueblo, Bandelier National Monument and the Santa Fe National Forest’s Española district. (Eddie Moore/)

The team spreads out across a severely burned area, searching for ideal patches that will nourish the seedlings and give them the best chance at surviving.

They quickly dig a hole, drop the seedling in and tamp down the dirt.

About 20 minutes later, 400 trees are in the soil.

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The small sprouting trees don’t look like much. But they are key to helping restore northern New Mexico’s forests and watersheds.

This fall’s planting project is in its third year.

More than 30,000 seedlings are distributed across Santa Clara Pueblo, Bandelier National Monument and the Santa Fe National Forest’s Española district.

The plants will help restore the 156,000 acres burned by the Las Conchas Fire.

But these young trees have not had an easy journey.

The seed stock comes from Santa Clara Pueblo and the US Forest Service, and the seedlings were grown at the state’s forestry center in Mora.

Plants were specially grown to be drought-resistant by carefully reducing the amount of water they received.

Earlier this year, the plants had to be relocated temporarily from the Mora center as the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire raged across northern New Mexico.

Joel Licona carries seedlings that will be planted in the Las Conchas and Cerro Pelado forests’ burn scars in New Mexico’s Jemez Mountains. (Eddie Moore/)

The reforestation crew has also been delayed because of areas that reburned in this year’s Cerro Pelado Fire and experienced post-fire flooding.

Long-term monitoring will help inform future reforestation projects, said David Hernandez, a stewardship ecologist with The Nature Conservancy New Mexico.

“If you have the data to see what is successful, then you can copy that in the future,” Hernandez said.

The group is using the Southern Rockies Reforestation Tool for studying satellite data, soil moisture and topography to select the ideal planting sites.

“We plan these nucleations, or tree islands, to fill in the gaps of the previous reforestation efforts,” Brown said.

The Nature Conservancy’s Rio Grande Water Fund and a Wildlife Conservation Society grant are funding the project.

Crews place the trees carefully where they will be shaded from the hot afternoon sun.

“That will help the soil moisture to be retained a little bit longer and allow for that seeding to take, and hopefully survive into the next season,” Brown said. “It’s been a struggle with this year’s fire and floods, but we try our best to get them into the ground as quickly as possible.”

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