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NMSU expert: A healthy forest is a fire-tolerant forest

ROCIADA, N.M. - Ten years ago, homeowners living on the edge of the Santa Fe National Forest agreed to what then seemed to be a contradictory idea: Cut down trees to improve the health of the forest that surrounded their hilltop home.



New Mexico State University forest expert John Harrington, right, and homeowner Tom Conklin discuss some of the measures that have been taken to improve the health of the forest surrounding Conklin's home near Rociada, N.M. The process of creating a healthier forest also reduced the fire danger on Conklin's heavily wooded lot. (05/25/2006) (NMSU Agricultural Communications Photo by Darrell J. Pehr)


In fact, Tom and Carmela Conklin had to receive special permission from their neighborhood association to remove trees, and they had to endure the displeasure of neighbors and others who couldn't imagine that removing trees would actually improve forest health.

"We knew what had to be done in terms of forest health," said New Mexico State University forest expert John Harrington. "The challenge was finding someone willing to do this."

Harrington, who serves as a professor and superintendent of NMSU's Mora Research Center, has worked for years to help people understand that the forest conditions they were familiar with are not generally healthy, and usually carry an even more menacing drawback - they are much more susceptible to intense fire danger.

Tom Conklin learned that firsthand soon after the Conklins moved to New Mexico in 1996. Conklin joined a volunteer fire department and helped fight the Sawyer fire, which charred more than 100 acres near Mora in May 1996.

"Being in the middle of a forest fire is an experience like no other," Conklin said. "You're in awe. It sounds like there's a train going by you all the time. You can get mesmerized, it moves so fast, so hot. That was just a real eye-opener."

Conklin's eyes also were opened to the potential fire danger surrounding his home, perched at the top of a ridge. It had seemed like an ideal setting, with its fabulous views and towering trees, when the Conklins first arrived from Philadelphia. Conklin's forest fire training now told him that his home was actually in the worst possible location should a fire occur.

The Conklins were no different from many others who dreamed of living in the midst of thick, green forests. Few people today have any memory of the forests in the West of 100 years ago, before a policy of aggressively fighting forest fires was adopted. Fire was a regular occurrence then, and forests of the West tended to have a more open, park-like appearance. An especially destructive forest fire season in 1910 led to a policy of fire suppression, and over the decades, forests became far too crowded. That led to disease, a detrimental environment for some wildlife and the development of a potential fire ferocity that had not been experienced before. Extraordinarily wet years in the 1970s and 1980s added to the buildup of trees and brush.

"We believe what we see first so we always saw dense forests as natural," Harrington said. "That mindset still exists. We all grew up with the forest looking the way it does now. We grew up with very dense forests."

Harrington worked with the Conklins to develop the treatment plan for their property and before long, a defensible space around the perimeter of the house was cleared and selected trees were removed from the surrounding forest.

"It's like a garden," Conklin said. "You have to pull the weeds for anything to grow well. It's like a huge garden. You have to maintain it."

The result? The Conklins saw a difference almost immediately and continue to enjoy the rewards almost 10 years later.

"It's just amazing to me how much the health of the forest has improved," Conklin said. "When we moved here, there was not an animal to be found." Since the treatment, they've seen bears, mountain lions, deer and wild turkeys.

"Everything has just come back to life," Conklin said. "It's given them their habitat back, which is great."

The Conklins received some unexpected help in their forest treatment efforts in 2002, when U.S. Forest Service firefighters used the home as a lookout while battling the nearby Trampas fire, which consumed 5,666 acres. Firefighters did some clearing around the house as the massive fire approached.

"It was really scary for a while," Conklin said. "It was coming right at us."

Of course, nothing convinces a property owner of the need to thin trees as fast as news of a massive forest fire in the neighborhood. The unprecedented fire seasons of 2000 and 2002 in the Southwest were especially convincing for many, when the Cerro Grande fire leveled more than 200 homes in Los Alamos and the Rodeo-Chediski fire blackened more than 400,000 acres, the largest fire in Arizona's history. Some fires burned so hot and across such large areas that they created their own weather conditions. And with far more people now living in forested areas, concern about forest conditions continues to heighten.

But Harrington hopes people will act not as much out of the fear of wildfire but out of a desire to improve forest health, although the two often go hand-in-hand.

"A healthy forest in many cases is a fire-tolerant forest," Harrington said. When preparing a treatment plan for a landowner, Harrington considers characteristics like the types of trees, the height of trees and the density of the forest. "Each site, each landowner has unique challenges. The treatment recommendations change as we learn more. A lot has been learned about Southwest forests in the last 10 years."

The Conklins' home has been used a demonstration site for people to become more comfortable with the idea of treating the forest, and the Conklins have been advocates for the process. After an area has been treated, Harrington sometimes uses it as an example to help convince others.

"I ask people, 'Do you still feel like you're in a forest?'" he said. "It's more park-like but it still feels like a forest."

Most important is that people understand the need to take action for the health of the forest, as the Conklins did almost 10 years ago.

"They understand it is more than just living in fear of fire. They understand what a healthy forest is," Harrington said. "We need to adapt how we live in these forests and live safely. And we can do it by using our knowledge of forest ecosystems. The process is piece by piece. They need to do it because they understand it's the right thing to do. If they're not happy with the concept, it isn't the right thing to do."

For the Conklins, the result of their decision is easy to see: It surrounds them.

"It's really brought an amazing vibrancy back to this forest," Conklin said. "Looking out the window and seeing a deer staring you in the face, it's pretty cool."

First photo is available at http://ucommphoto.nmsu.edu/newsphoto/harrington_john.jpg.
CUTLINE: New Mexico State University forest expert John Harrington, right, and homeowner Tom Conklin discuss some of the measures that have been taken to improve the health of the forest surrounding Conklin's home near Rociada, N.M. The process of creating a healthier forest also reduced the fire danger on Conklin's heavily wooded lot. (NMSU Photo by Darrell J. Pehr)

Darrell J. Pehr
May 25, 2006