GRANTS, N.M. — For 30 years, the lumber industry logged the Zuni Mountains. Once all the trees were gone, the lumbermen closed their mills, pulled up their railroad tracks, and moved on to greener forests, leaving behind a largely barren landscape.
Due to railroad history, there are actually very few “old” trees still standing in the Zunis.
“We’re stuck with this glut of mid-age trees,” Shawn Martin, project lead for Cibola National Forest on the Puerco Collaborative Landscape Restoration Project, said during a field tour in June.
The purpose of the trip was to show existing forest conditions, talk about the desired conditions and how the Forest Service plans to get there, and the different treatments that will be used to restore forest land, woodlands and grasslands.
The Puerco Project, which encompasses about 95,000 acres, is basically step two of the ongoing Bluewater Collaborative Landscape Restoration Project. Its purpose is to restore forest health by increasing resiliency and improving sustainability.
The Forest Service plans to thin 81,000 acres on the west side of the Zuni Mountains near McGaffey and Fort Wingate, which includes grasslands, pinon-juniper woodland, ponderosa pine and a small amount of mixed conifers. A public scoping period ended April 14, with only five comments received. A draft environmental assessment is expected to be released in spring 2018.
“Suppressing fire is a huge thing that has led to the density of our forest and the forest becoming a little too homogenous, or even-age,” Martin said. “We primarily only have two age classes in our ponderosa pine, which makes up the majority of this project area.”
“Our mission in the ponderosa pine is to favor the big trees that we do have so that we’ve got that older tree component, and then create some openings so that we can encourage the establishment of younger trees as well,” he said. Although plans were to conduct thinning and burning in the McKenzie Ridge area of Six-Mile Canyon, due to an abundance of sensitive soils in the Chinle formation — similar to soils seen in the Painted Desert — the agency has changed its strategy.
“We’re basically going to take more of a hands-off approach,” Martin said. “We don’t want to make the soil any worse.”
Rather than implement prescribed burning, the Forest Service likely will do light hand thinning and put some material on the ground to better hold the soil in place and establish grass. The area accounts for about 10,000 to 15,000 acres in the north half of the project.
Canopy cover outside the Chinle formation is currently in the 50-60 percent range. The Forest Service plans to thin it to 30-40 percent. That would focus on removing ladder fuels, diseased trees, dead and dying tops, while providing the public opportunities to remove firewood. It also would create a fuel break for Jamestown to the east in the event of fire.
The Forest Service also plans a variety of infrastructure improvements, including cleaning or reconstructing approximately 15 existing dirt tanks and constructing two new dirt tanks to provide water for not only cattle and livestock, but also wildlife. Plans are to reconstruct 15 miles of fence and one corral, install approximately three cattle guards, re-drill three existing wells, establish three new wells, and also install or extend two pipelines.
Virginia Yazzie-Ashley of the Forest Service talked about conditions at a grazing allotment in the Six Mile Canyon area.
“Water distribution is really important in any grazing allotment. If you don’t have water distribution across the grazing allotments, the livestock will graze around the watering places and the rest of your allotment will be left ungrazed,” she said. “To practice adaptive flexible management, we try to develop these waters so we have better distribution over the allotment.” Water is one of the tools that can be used to manage livestock, she said. The permittee who holds the lease to the allotment wants to redesign the current infrastructure, possibly adding greater storage capacity, a trough, and a solar pump.
Because those type projects are expensive, they have to be done over a number of years. But the end result is better water distribution, improved vegetation cover and increased diversity of grass species, she said.
“All these projects are just to manage herbivory within this landscape project,” Donald Serrano, range project manager, said. “When these guys do their treatments, whether it’s thinning followed by prescribed burning, we certainly want to manage the livestock impact to that. That’s the reason there are a number of these improvements that are being proposed. It’s not just about managing for livestock, it’s about managing for this larger watershed area.”
KISSED BY MISTLETOE
At another stop along the tour, Martin showed a stand of trees which will be managed for dwarf mistletoe infestation.
“Basically, every conifer has its own kind of mistletoe that will affect it. It’s a parasite, so it basically it is living off its host tree,” he said. “It’s not photosynthesizing, it’s not creating any nutrients. It’s taking nutrients from the tree, it’s sucking up the water.”
Worse, it spreads.
“It’s got these little seeds that are really sticky and they’ll shoot out about 30, maybe 40 feet, and being real sticky, they’ll land on smaller ponderosa pine, and they’ll infect the small trees. It’s a real vicious cycle,” Martin said.
Greg Reynolds, plant pathologist, said seeds from the dwarf mistletoe, or “witch’s broom,” as it is commonly called, stick on the pine needles and when it rains, they slide down the needle and infect the tree. However, it’s also a native pathogen, so it does have some important value to the ecology of the area.
“Because of fire suppression, the trees are a lot more dense than they are supposed to be, so even though it’s covering about the same area that it always has, it’s much more intense than it used to be,” Reynolds said.
Fire tends to sanitize stands that have heavy mistletoe infection, he said, but because of fire suppression, “We’re keeping stands around that would ordinarily be destroyed by fire, so that makes the problem a lot worse than it should be.”
“A lot of wildlife likes the witch’s broom,” he said. “But if you have higher than 20 percent infection rate in a stand, even-aged management is recommended. If you have a heavily infested stand, (over 80 percent) you kind of have to work with just leaving it alone and letting it do its thing. You can also look at maybe doing stand replacement.”
“If you’ve got a big old ponderosa that’s got a ton of mistletoe on it, all of the regeneration that’s going to come underneath it is going to get infected and the regen(eration) will never become mature trees,” he said.
A mature tree can survive for decades with the infection, which can take up to 10 years to show up.
“The idea behind the treatment here would be not to take every single tree that’s infected, but to leave the best of the worst,” Martin said.
Mount Taylor District Ranger Alvin Whitehair said traditional Native American elders collected mistletoe in the old days.
“The mistletoe was selected when the sheep were kind of feeling sickly. They would burn it and let the smoke douse the sheep. They would breathe it and somehow it seemed like it inoculated them. The next morning when you opened the sheep corral, they’d be jumping. It changed their behavior somehow and they weren’t sick anymore.
“The mistletoe has been with us for a long time,” he said.
Information from: Gallup Independent, http://www.gallupindependent.com