Using fire to restore watersheds

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8-11-06 Pano small
I’ve got an article (PDF) in today’s Daily Press discussing a recent project in the Mangas Watershed to restore fire into the natural cycle of the ecosystem. A big part of the article details the cooperation among the agencies involved in the process, but the real interesting stuff if the way prescribed burns are helping the ecosystem in southwest New Mexico.

4-25-06 Pano small

Bruce Anderson, a Gila National Forest wildlife biologist, provided these before-and-after photos from one of the areas that was treated with fire. As you can see from the photos above, the area is returning to more of a “woodland” system, as opposed to a heavily forested (with piñon and juniper) system. The first photo is from August, while the second photo was taken more than a year ago in April 2006.

Here’s what he said about the project:

During the past several years, project partners completed a number of prescribed burns, totaling more than 55,000 acres, in the Mangas watershed area. In addition, more than 250 erosion control structures were completed along rills in the watershed.

The difference has been drastic. Bruce Anderson, a biologist with the Gila National Forest, told the Daily Press his agency was “very supportive” of the type of habitat restoration the Mangas project fostered.

“We’re seeing tremendous results,” Anderson said. “We’ve been doing this since 2000, and we’ve seen a very definite increase in the amount of deer use in these areas, as well as many of the other species.”

One of the constants during the past two years has been the number of Forest Service employees (and others) explaining the benefits of prescribed fires. Even after the tragic Los Alamos fire, and a resulting ban on prescribed burns, those who work in forests know that fire is a natural part of the ecosystem. I was told yesterday that fire traditionally swept through areas of the Mangas Watershed every 8-11 years, based on tree ring samples.

Fire (like water and energy) is a complex topic here in the Southwest. It can be incredibly hazardous, especially to homes within the Wildland Urban Interface. But it can also play a vital role in restoring the forest to a more natual state.

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