As a single-person, part-time office, the Grant Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) has its work cut out when it comes to implementing on-the-ground projects, so the SWCD is partnering with The Nature Conservancy (TNC) and the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to undertake forest restoration in New Mexico.

The timing couldn’t be better, as New Mexico’s Gila National Forest, which is located in part in Grant County and near the Grant SWCD headquarters in Silver City, has been focusing on restoration efforts to reduce high fuel loads, especially near communities and neighborhoods adjacent to the forest.

“We don’t have funding where we can hire a forester or a technician, so it’s really important we partner with these outside agencies to help us conduct these projects,” Grant SWCD Project Manager Rebecca Benavidez said.

“The fires can spread quickly and rapidly, so any time we can do fuels reduction projects it helps the watershed and helps prevent catastrophic fires,” she said. “We struggle to find funding, so these grants are really important to us.”

Grant SWCD was awarded a $315,000 Collaborative Forest Restoration Program (CFRP) grant from the USFS, which also required a 25 percent or $80,000 non-federal match. The grant aims to build collaboration and provide treatment to 237 acres of ponderosa pine and pinyon-juniper on the wilderness district of Gila National Forest in southwest New Mexico.

The project takes place in Gattons Park’s wildland-urban interface along the edge of a residential area. Objectives include reducing fire risk, harvesting and utilizing small-diameter wood, restoring forest structure, and improving wildlife habitat. Now in its second year, 116 acres have been treated to date, Benavidez said.

“I’m thrilled with what we’ve been able to accomplish,” USFS Gila National Forest Partnership Coordinator Julia Faith Rivera said. “We’re getting quality work done on the ground and building stronger relationships, not just for this project but for future collaboration efforts as well.”

TNC initially applied for and received a CFRP grant for planning the project. In 2018, the Grant SWCD was awarded the implementation grant. TNC assisted with completion of the archaeological and environmental analysis in the first CFRP grant and currently continues the project monitoring component in the second CFRP.

“The other piece is just trying to facilitate collaboration around implementation on public and private land restoration,” TNC Gila Program Manager Martha Cooper said. “It’s been entirely positive. Certainly, the folks who have come out to see the project have been really interested and encouraged by what it looks like.”

“The tree density has been reduced by nearly a half, and we’re seeing a lot more small openings and breaks in the canopy,” she said. “The Forest Service has been happy to get the support from the Grant SWCD and having the work on the ground, and the contractors have done a great job.”

The two contractors for the project have not been involved in forest restoration previously, Rivera said, so helping them and being able to have flexibility through the CFRP grant enables cost savings and more connections throughout the community.

With Forest Service guidance, the contractors have been able to remove timber to an area where it can be chipped, and residential landowners have come and taken the mulch for their own use, saving hauling costs and benefiting the nearby community. In some areas, contractors have created piles with the smaller logs and slash and local fire districts have come in and performed prescribed burns to reduce the load.

“That’s one of the most important aspects of the Forest Service CFRP Program in New Mexico,” Rivera said. “We’re able to take into account everyone’s needs and desires and build trust and relationships among the partners, from the proposal development to achieving the desired end results that improve forest health.”

“Landowners adjacent to the project area have come into the Wilderness Ranger Station to tell us how great the area looks, how pleased they are with the results,” she said. “Several locals have visited with the contractors at the project site, and have been really impressed with their commitment to doing what’s right for the landscape. Having really great partners is just a win-win for everyone.”

The Grant SWCD hopes this project will lead to other projects and stronger partnerships in the future.

“It’s always beneficial when agencies can work together for a common purpose,” Benavidez said. “Grant SWCD values these collaborative partnerships and is always receptive to working with others in conservation efforts. We are accomplishing a great deal in our area.”

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