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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. Continue reading

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Climate: Greenhouse gas buildup ‘loads the dice’ for Southwest megadroughts

Odds of 30-year dry spells increase dramatically as global temps rise

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Green bars indicate wet periods, the larger the bar the more unusually wet. In a similar way, yellow indicates dry and droughty periods. The graph stretches from January 1895 on the left to last month on the right, showing how the cycle of droughts alternating with wet years has changed, with dry years becoming more prevalent.

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Tree ring records clearly show that the southwestern U.S. experienced megadroughts long before the anthropogenic global warming era. One such decades-long dry spell may have been a factor in the collapse of the Anasazi civilization at Mesa Verde.

But the steady buildup of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere is loading the dice in favor of another megadrought sooner, rather later, according to scientists with Cornell University, the University of Arizona and U.S. Geological Survey. The chances of a decade-long drought is now at least 50 percent, and there’s a 20 percent to 50 percent chance of a 30-year megadrought.

“For the southwestern U.S., I’m not optimistic about avoiding real megadroughts,” said Toby Ault, Cornell assistant professor of earth and atmospheric sciences and lead author of the paper. “As we add greenhouse gases into the atmosphere – and we haven’t put the brakes on stopping this – we are weighting the dice for megadrought conditions.” Continue reading

Biodiversity: Feds propose more jaguar critical habitat

USFWS also seeking comment on a draft economic analysis

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A revised critical habitat designation for jaguars adds lands in Arizona’s Santa Rita Mountains, where a lone jaguar has been photographed several times in recent months.

By Summit Voice

FRISCO — Federal biologists have revised a critical habitat proposal for endangered jaguars in the southwest. The updated maps include areas in Arizona’s Santa Rita Mountains where a lone jaguar has been caught on camera several times in the past nine months.

Under the modified U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service proposal, released last week, a total of about 850,000 acres would be designated, including lands around a planned open-pit copper mine. Conservation advocates say the mine could interfere with the cats’ dispersal into North America. They hope the critical habitat designation will prevent approval of the mine.

Along with the updated habitat proposal, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service also released a draft economic analysis and draft environmental assessment of the proposed designation.

The economic analysis is a crucial issue relating to the proposed mine, because if the benefits of excluding an area outweigh the benefits of designating it, the agency can exclude an area from critical habitat, unless the exclusions would result in the extinction of the species. Continue reading

Military airtankers to join Colorado firefighting efforts

Forest Service cites ‘explosive wildfire conditions’ in deploying the planes

Two MAFFS aircraft will be coming from the 153rd Airlift Wing in Cheyenne, WY, and two aircraft will be from the local 302nd Airlift Wing here in Colorado Springs, Colo. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Daniel Butterfield)

Two MAFFS aircraft will be activated to help fight the Black Forest and Royal Gorge fires in Colorado. (U.S. Air Force photo by Tech. Sgt. Daniel Butterfield).

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY —After a sudden start to the Colorado wildfire season, The U.S. Forest Service is activating two giant C-130s to help with aerial firefighting efforts. The planes are equipped with Modular Airborne Firefighting Systems that can drop up to 3,000 gallons of water or retardant on a single run. They can discharge their entire load in under five seconds or make variable drops.

The systems will be provided by the 302nd Airlift Wing, Air Force Reserve, Peterson Air Force Base, Colo. They will be based in Colorado Springs, Colo., and will begin flying wildfire suppression missions as soon as safe and effective operations can be established.

“We are experiencing an uptick in wildfire activity and we are mobilizing MAFFS to ensure that we have adequate air tanker capability as we confront explosive wildfire conditions in Colorado, New Mexico, and elsewhere in the West,” said U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. “Maintaining adequate aerial firefighting capability is critical to provide support to, and enhance the safety of, the firefighters on the ground who are working so hard to suppress wildfires that are threatening lives, homes, infrastructure, and valuable natural and cultural resources.”

Airtankers are used in wildfire suppression to deliver fire retardant to reduce the intensity and slow the growth of wildfires so that firefighters on the ground can construct containment lines safely, which is how wildfires are suppressed.

Fire retardant is not typically used to suppress wildfires directly. Professional fire managers decide whether to use airtankers to deliver fire retardant , and where to use them, based on the objectives they have established to manage wildfires and the strategies they are using to achieve them.  Airtankers are not requested for all wildfires.

The Modular Airborne Firefighting Systems program is a joint effort between the U.S. Forest Service and Department of Defense that has been in place for 40 years. The U.S. Forest Service owns the Modular Airborne Firefighting Systems equipment and supplies the retardant, while the Department of Defense provides the C-130 aircraft, flight crews and maintenance and support personnel to fly the missions.

The U.S. Forest Service has a total of eight Modular Airborne Firefighting Systems ready for operational use. Military installations in Wyoming, North Carolina, California, and Colorado provide C-130s to fly the missions.

In 2012, Modular Airborne Firefighting Systems delivered 2.4 million gallons of fire retardant while flying wildfire suppression missions in Colorado, Wyoming, South Dakota, Montana, Utah, Idaho, Oregon, California, and Nevada.  That was the second busiest year for the systems in at least the last 20 years. 1994 was the busiest year, when they delivered more than 5 million gallons of fire retardant while flying wildfire suppression missions.

Climate: Drought conditions edge westward

Wet, cool spring brings relief to Midwest

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The most severe areas of drought encompass parts of the central-southern plains, spreading southwest into parts of Colorado and New Mexico.

By Bob Berwyn

FRISCO — Drought woes have eased in the Midwest after a wet spring, but the far West,  California in particular, are facing continued dry conditions. California has reported its driest year to-date on record, with only 27 percent of normal precipitation for January through April. That doesn’t bode well for the state’s water supplies, although at least reservoir storage is close to normal in California.

New Mexico and Nevada are in bad shape when it comes to reservoir storage and there’s little relief in sight at the end of the snow season. Forecasters with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration said dry soil conditions in the southwest could contribute to higher than average temperatures this summer. Continue reading

Endangered species listing sought for boreal toads

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Do boreal toads need immediate protection under the Endangered Species Act? Photo courtesy National Park Service.

Conservation groups say they’ll go to court to force action 20 years after federal biologists first said the species qualifies for protection

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Rare boreal toads need Endangered Species Act protection sooner rather later, according to conservation activists who this week said they will sue the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service over it’s failure to protect dwindling populations of the ampibian.

Although Colorado populations of boreal toads have also declined from historic levels, the state is still somewhat of a stronghold, thanks in part to a state-led restoration effort and other protective measures. Boreal toads exist in less than 1 percent of their historic breeding areas in the southern Rockies. Continue reading

Biodiversity: Can the courts help save Mexican gray wolves?

Lawsuit seeks to have Mexican gray wolves protected as a separate subspecies

Photo courtesy of the Mexican Wolf Interagency Field Team

A Mexican gray wolf in the wilds of the Blue Range wolf recovery area. Photo courtesy of the Mexican Wolf Interagency Field Team.

By Summit Voice

SUMMIT COUNTY — Wildlife conservation advocates are hoping to get some help from federal courts in their quest to prevent Mexican gray wolves from falling over the precipice of extinction.

The Center for Biological Diversity this week sued the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service today over the agency’s rejection of a 2009 scientific petition from the center that sought classification of the Mexican gray wolf as an endangered subspecies or population of gray wolves.

Mexican wolves are currently protected as endangered along with all other wolves in the lower 48 states, with the exception of those in the northern Rocky Mountains and Great Lakes region. The lawsuit claims that protection as a subspecies will help ensure Mexican gray wolf recovery. Continue reading

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