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Are New Mexico forests holding steady in the face of climate change, drought and wildfires?

New inventory assesses state’s woodland resources
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STAFF REPORT

FRISCO — Mortality is increasing and growth is slowing down in New Mexico’s forest lands, according to a new forest inventory released in late August. The only species showing overall growth are ponderosa and piñon pines, as well as junipers, as insects, wildfires drought and disease take an increasing toll on the state’s woodlands.

Forests grow on about 25 million acres in New Mexico, with 44 percent on private lands and 31 percent on national forest lands. About 40 percent (10.8 million acres) of the forests are piñon-juniper woodlands, by far the state’s most extensive forest type. Gambel oak is the most abundant tree species by number of trees, and ponderosa pine is the most abundant by volume or biomass. Overall, researchers estimate there are more than 6 billion live trees growing in the state.

The inventory documented the drought-induced piñon pine die-off in the early 2000s, estimating that about 8 percent the species died, but noted that the mortality rate has tapered off.New Mexico’s aspen forests, covering about 380,000 acres, held steady in the past decade.

Prepared by U.S. Forest Service and state forestry experts, the inventory shows that forest mortality was highest on National Forest lands, where mortality exceeds growth. Timber harvests from National Forest lands decreased by 95 percent and the total volume of wood harvested from New Mexico’s forests has decreased by more than half over the past decade.

Economic analyses point to a shrinking forest products industry, which diminishes the ability of forest managers to mitigate high-mortality events through vegetation management.

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The report is billed as the New Mexico’s most comprehensive forest inventory. With 44 percent of the state’s forest lands tied to private or tribal lands, Forest Service experts said that collaboration with the state was critical.

“This partnership offers more than a broader understanding in forest health trends,” said Forest Service scientists Sara Goeking. “Together we can share the results of this inventory and enlist private landowner support in obtaining future data.”

From 2008 through 2012, researchers studied forested lands on more than 3,000 areas across New Mexico.

“A significant trend we found was an overall increase in tree mortality and decline in tree growth,” said Goeking.

While the primary focus of the inventory is forest health, it contains information that may be applied beyond forest management issues. Land managers can use the data to better understand wildlife habitat for species such as the northern flicker and the acorn wood pecker.

“The Forest Inventory Analysis field inventory has been an incredibly important step for us to take here in New Mexico so we don’t lose touch with what’s going on in our forests and watersheds,” said State Forestry FIA Coordinator Mary Stuever. “We as New Mexicans are closely tied with our natural surroundings on both historical and cultural levels, which makes this analysis even more vital to help us learn to be better stewards of the land.”

New Mexico’s forests encompass many ecosystems, from mesquite and juniper woodlands in the southern deserts and steppes to the timber forests in the southern Rocky Mountains. The forests provide watershed, recreational and scenic values; wildlife habitat; wood products; economic benefits to surrounding communities; and traditional resources such as food and dyes.

“Almost every community in New Mexico exists in or near forested land of one kind or another,” said Stuever. “Each of these areas is vital for our culture, economic development, recreation and quality of life and must be cared for.”

 

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