The Silver City-Grant County Chamber of Commerce held its monthly luncheon on Thursday, March 6. Before the featured speaker, Gila National Forest Supervisor Kelly Russell gave her presentation, Bruce Ashburn of PNM presented a check to the chamber to sponsor the 4th of July activities.
Russell said she has been in the supervisor post since March 2011. "This is the 107th birthday of the Gila National Forest and the 115th anniversary of the Gila Forest Reserve, the precursor to the Gila Wilderness."
She said the 3.3 million acres of Gila National Forest actually includes part of the Apache National Forest, which is the part of the forest located in New Mexico.
"We have 790,000 acres of wilderness and 1,600 miles of trail," Russell said.
She said fire season is on the minds of many people, including forest personnel. "The precipitation this week was great, but it's not enough. We need that much twice a week for the next three months to make a difference. We had good rains last year and now we have the brown grass, which is very dry."
She said March 7 is the third anniversary of the Quail Ridge Fire. "I was just moving in when I saw smoke that was too close. Starting Friday and continuing Saturday at the Western New Mexico University (Besse-Forward) Global Resource Center is the Grant County Symposium on Preparedness. I encourage everyone to come by. There will be different topics to interest almost everyone. The New Mexico Department of Health will have a brown bag lunch and a panel on smoke and its health effects."
Russell said the forest's Dispatch is operating seven days a week. "We are bringing in a helicopter early. We have already had eight wildfires in February, with most from campfires or welding sparks. The Hot Shots are coming in April."
She said the forest was trying to do prescribed burns, but "only if conditions are right. I have the feeling we will not be able to do as many this year."
In the three years Russell has been supervisor, she said more than 533,000 acres in the Gila have burned. "Thank goodness there have been no major injuries or fatalities."
Last week's Fifth Annual Gila Natural History Symposium showed results of studies on the seeding and mulching done post-fire in the forest.
"We sell timber on the Gila," Russell said. "Not as much as we used to, and mostly in the Reserve and Quemado districts. We sell about 10,000 hundred cubic feet (ccf) a year and we have Christmas tree permits. Our range program continues, as cows have been here as long as the forest has. We have 120 permittees.
"I know some of you are interested in the Travel Management Plan," Russell continued. "We expect it to be completed next month, mid-April. It will come out and people will be able to review it and can appeal it. Then there may be lawsuits. I hope it is done by the end of summer. The map of roads will be released the end of summer into the first part of fall. We will use time to educate people."
She said, in the fall, the forest would have to start its Land Management Plan. "That takes a few years, too."
The Gila National Forest has 185 full-time employees and about 150 part-time ones.
"We are renewing the lease on our office," Russell said. "So we'll be around a few more years."
She announced the Catwalk would reopen the first weekend in April in conjunction with the Glenwood Dutch Oven Cook-off. "The flood was a 1,000-year event," she said. "The trail is even with the creek now and lots of the Catwalk is no longer there."
Russell said the area would be open to the primitive steps. "We will work with local folks on the vision for the Catwalk.
The Gila Wilderness was one of the first wildernesses created after the Wilderness Act was passed 50 years ago. "We are working with the Silver City Museum to have an exhibition about the wilderness. "
She said a national symposium on wilderness would be held in October in Albuquerque.
"The Kingston Campground was wiped out, but we will open it first as a picnic area," Russell said. "McMillan and Cherry Creek campgrounds will be open April 1. The town of Silver City is working for the first ever Gateway Community to the Continental Divide Trail.
"We appreciate our partners and our volunteers," Russell concluded.
Questions and comments will continue in a subsequent article.