By Mary Alice Murphy

The chairs of the county commissions in Sierra and Grant counties answered questions from members of the Legislative Finance Committee on July 19, 2022.

Grant County Chair Chris Ponce and Sierra County Chair James Paxton attended to talk about the Black Fire. Although Catron County Commissioner Anita Hand was also invited, she was unable to attend.

Paxton noted a soil and burn map showed the severity of the Black Fire. Out of the total at that time of 325,000 acres, the map showed about 80,000 acres had been severely or moderately burned. “That means the soil will move dramatically in case of flash floods,” Paxton said.

He noted that Sierra County has inholdings of 140 acres where five grazing permittees are in peril. “The water will also flow from Sierra County into Catron County, into Diamond Creek and into Grant County.”

Paxton named the permittees who have been affected. They include the Schneberger family, the Doherty family, the Diamonds, the Ravenau family, and the Cochrans. “They all have fences, wells, and water infrastructure, including windmills, that have been severely damaged. The Forest Service will not allow them to graze their cattle if they cannot contain them. With no fences, they will not allow the cows back on the leased land. We also want to wait until we have grasses with seedheads that the cows can thrash into the soft soil. We met with the Forest Service on Friday and did a tour out there. Although there is a national fund called Burned Area Rehab, these families are not going to get any money. The money is going to the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire and perhaps to the McBride Fire. I don’t disagree because those people lost homes. But the impact on these five rancher families is they can’t graze, and the Forest Service can’t tell us when they will get fencing material. The partnership has always been that the Forest Service paid for the materials and the permittee did the labor or contracted for the labor. We’re going to get some flooding out of this. The Forest Service has equipment, and they are working feverishly to try to prevent some of the flooding A lot of it is in the Aldo Leopold Wilderness. Jack Diamond rebuilt three miles of fence just last year. The fire got so hot and burned the fences that this year, he can take a piece of barbed wire and break it into bits. That fence will have to be rebuilt. And with our permittees not getting any money, they don’t know where to go. Fencing materials cost about $15,000 a mile and about that much to put it up. This is a huge problem for those five grazing permittees. FEMA is pretty much restricted to flood. The Soil and Water Conservation District in Sierra County has talked to Natural Resources Conservation Services. The watershed protection group and EQUIP also have problems doing much on federal land, because they are cooperators with private land. We’re at an impasse and what I would hope is that the Legislative Finance Committee can put some pressure on the Forest Service and get them to redeem some of their responsibilities. I spent 30 years with the Forest Service, 10 of them as District Ranger on the Black Range. They let these fires go, and it expands the range of them. I know they work to protect the firefighters, but I believe that for about 100,000 acres of those 325,000 the firefighters could have gone in and done more. I’m of a different era. I’m not second guessing what those incident management teams did, but I think we as the state and we as the county need to put pressure on the federal government to return management of the forests to those locally on the ground and loosen the restrictions. I think we will see some ranchers who will sell their cattle, put their place up for sale and move away. And it is an economic base for Sierra County.”

Ponce noted that Grant County hasn’t felt the impact yet. It will be this year or next year with the flooding. “We do support our surrounding counties. Grant County depends a lot on the outdoor recreation economy, hunting, hiking, sightseeing. We have been doing a lot of road cleanup on 135 and 152. It does take a lot out of our budget. The only road to the Gila Cliff Dwellings is through Grant County. If a flood takes out the Grapevine Bridge that will impact us, because we depend on our visitors. We don’t want to see these burned areas neglected. These fires damage our tourism. What if they have to shut down the campgrounds? We’re worried about that. We are trying to support Sierra, Socorro and Catron counties.”

Rep. Nathan Small said at the most recent legislative session, the members had passed a large package on the natural landscape. “Commissioner Paxton, you said you reached out to the Soil and Water Conservation district.”

Paxton agreed but said that most of the ranchers have not even been able to get out to their leases to do an assessment on the damage. “The soil and water conservation district is ready to sponsor these five permittees with the NRCS.” He pointed out on a map the red portions, which indicated that the fire had burned everything from the ground to the tops of trees. We will need to cut the big, burned trees.”

Small said the legislators were proud to set aside $10 million for the soil and water conservation districts. “Unfortunately, they did not get the lion’s share. As we build the budget, we need to recognize that we are having hotter, drier weather. The soil and water conservation districts seem to be the critical partner.”

Paxton agreed and said the county is pretty much just cheerleading.

Small said he thought the Legislature should do another run at getting more money for the soil and water conservation districts.

Ponce went back to the recreational aspect. “We got junior monies, and we’re working on a master outdoor recreation plan. We are building a trail system by the Bataan Memorial Park, and we’ve been working hard to get the plan done.”

Small said he sees Freeport-McMoran as being key to a lower carbon future with its copper production, which is key to renewable energy.

Rep. Patricia Lundstrom asked what the commissioners felt would be the future impacts of the fires.

Ponce said he thinks they will close the door on the economies, “with the closing of the campgrounds and losing tourists, as well as hurting the road budget using it to clear roads. We are having to rebuild.”

Paxton said 40 miles of the Continental Divide Trail is in Sierra County. “Also, there are miles of the trail in Grant and Catron counties. We have people coming from all over the world to hike. The trees over time will fall in wind events. Most of the trail may be closed. It also affects hunters and ATV riders. We foresee huge impacts to the gross receipts tax. We draw people in, because they come for the beauty. It will be many years for it to recover.”

Lundstrom said it is her request that this particular subcommittee exists. “First we were hit by Covid and now by fires. We need recovery. I don’t recall seeing anything in any of the funding bills about helping tourism recover. I don’t think loans are a good idea, when people are under water, with no expectation to repay them. I hope the committee can come back with some recommendations. We have a lot of supporters of the soil and water conservation districts, so we will try to get money again this year.”

Sen. Siah Correa Hemphill said she appreciates all the work that volunteers do on the trails. “Commissioner Ponce, do we keep track of the numbers of CDT hikers each year? And is there a way to monitor the numbers of tourists?”

Ponce said he didn’t think the county had any numbers. “There is a difficulty in putting a price on supplies that hikers purchase. I wish we had a system to know what comes in from tourism.”

Hemphill asked about any reports of flooding on the rivers.

“I know we’ve had some minor clean ups,” Ponce said.

Hemphill asked Paxton what the approximate cost of replacing fencing would total.

Paxton said he would have to get back to her, but he thought it could be as much as 30,000 miles of fencing. “We won’t know until the ranchers can get in for assessments. They are busy rounding up their cattle to get them off the permit, so they aren’t fined.”

Hemphill asked where the cattle go.

Paxton said they were trying to find alternate places. “But they keep their heifers following along the other cattle. If they disperse the herds, they lose the investment of trained cattle to teach the younger ones how to survive in the wilderness.” He estimated about 700 head of cattle are impacted.

Sen. Pat Woods asked about miles of pipeline and structural damage to wells. “The big deal for you is the cow tax. The cow tax will go up and then there are fewer cattle on the market. Maybe the Forest Service will have some flexibility about the fences for the ranchers. What I’m asking is there anything else we can do to talk to the Forest Service to help the permittees?”

Paxton said he talked to the Dohertys and they had solar cells on their wells, but all the solar cells burned. “They had 7,000 existing polypipe. The cow tax is indirect. The permittees buy fuel, groceries, supplies. They are hand to mouth, year to year. With no calves, they will have no revenue.”

Woods said they also need cattle to reseed the ranges. “What they do for the land is unbelievable. We count on cattle to do a lot of good out there. I hate to see families leave. I don’t know if anyone will replace them. We will try to get overall help for them.”

Rep. Tara Lujan asked if there was any flexibility on the forest.

Paxton replied that the forest supervisor, Mike Martinez, has expressed he will do whatever he can to help the permittees. “If we get a gentle rain and if they get the seed out, it will grow and put on seed and the cattle will thrash it into the ground so it will grow again next year. I hope Martinez can sell flexibility up the chain to the district and to D.C.”

Lujan asked if the committee could send a letter of support for these communities.

“I think the LFC and the Legislature and the governor can come together and make demands on the federal government,” Paxton said. “We are passing resolutions to support livestock, hunters and outfitters.”

LFC Committee Chair George Muñoz said: “We’re here and we’ve invited you. What suggestions do you have? Nothing has been said about how to prevent being in this situation again. I have seen good practices that worked, but they have been dissolved. New Mexico once was stronger in logging, but sawmills are almost extinct We have had a lot more grazing. The communities have mobilized crews, but could they mobilize the federal agencies? If we don’t make changes to what is working, we’ll be here again five years from now. Tourism is very important in my area. Whatever we come up with, I hope they have solid recommendations. We’re not the only ones in this situation. In California, it’s fire after fire.”

Ponce said: “We’ve always said: ‘don’t forget where you come from.’ Yes, we need to go back to what worked. We can look back to what used to work and what can work again.”

Muñoz said: “We also have to listen and come to solutions. I heard they were spending $6 million a day to fight the fires. Someone has to take charge. We have to protect what we have.”

Paxton said the 1879 Organic Act had two priorities. One was to produce timber and the other was to provide water. “The Forest Service hands have been tied by environmentalists and regulations. I hope New Mexico and the western states can return forests to local managers and not managers in D.C. In 1992, was the last timber sale when I was in the Forest Service and the mill that processed the wood is gone. We need to do work here, not by national government managed by environmental groups and deep-pocketed lawyers.”

Muñoz agreed and said in the 1950s and ‘60s, what was then the largest sawmill in the state no longer exists. “We had years of production, but now hands are tied.”

Rep. Gail Armstrong said one topic that hasn’t been talked about is breeding. “With the stress on the cows, they will probably sluff their calves. You can’t just go buy a calf and put it on a ranch. Sen. Hemphill and I are working to get a permit for a logging company to get their federal permit. We have to get back together to get things done. It can happen in Arizona, but in New Mexico, we can’t.”

Sen. William Sharer said he is in line with Muñoz and Armstrong. “We used to have forest management. The wood in the trees that had some fire has value for about 24 months after it is burned. But the Forest Service forbids harvesting it. Let the people cut them down and sell them. It will get rid of the dead trees and letting them fall on hikers.”

Muñoz asked the commissioners if they had asked for emergency declarations.

Paxton said his county will apply for $750,000 in emergency aid.

Muñoz pointed out if it is not applied for, they won’t get it. “But I think you cannot expend emergency funds on federal land, but maybe only through an emergency order. For flooding, roadway closures, ask for emergency funding.”

Sharer asked for a letter to be drawn up to send to the Forest Service and Congress to ask the Forest Service to start letting the state and local agencies manage the land. “They require ranchers to put in infrastructure, they should damn well pay to replace it. If the Forest Service gave the land to the state to manage, it would be much better.”

Small said paying for the infrastructure piece seems reasonable, but “I can’t support land ownership by the state. It gets us in tricky waters. I do think there is need for forest management.”

Muñoz said: “We will do a draft letter and have it reviewed by the full committee. We will try to get you unrestricted money as an emergency.”

Ponce thanked the committee for their time and recommendations.

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