All week, we track environment news around the western United States, finding the most important stories and new studies you need to read to understand what’s happening with water, climate, energy, landscapes and communities around New Mexico. Then Thursday morning, you get that news in your Inbox. You can subscribe to that weekly email here. Here’s a snippet of what subscribers read this week:
• On Sunday, the New York Times ran a provocatively-titled op-ed, “The Rio Grande is Dying. Does Anyone Care?” The op-ed has some disappointing errors in it, as anyone familiar with the Rio Grande and the Colorado River noticed.
Matthew Hurteau spends a lot of time here on the eastern flank of the Jemez Mountains, checking on seedlings and dodging a sunburn. On a mid-July afternoon, rain drops from monsoon clouds in the valley south of us. But here, up above 7,000 feet, it’s sunny and hot. Until recently, this craggy landscape was carpeted by a dense pine forest. But today, as we look across the thousands of acres where the 2011 Las Conchas fire burned at its hottest, we’re taking in a panoramic view of the Sangre de Cristos to the north and Cochiti Reservoir and the Sandia Mountains down the Rio Grande Valley.
-New Mexico’s rig count has reached an all-time high, and 101 of the 103 rigs currently drilling new wells are in the Permian Basin. Last year at this time, there were 57 active rigs in the state. -Andrew Oxford has a story at the Santa Fe New Mexican about the aftermath of the Ute Park Fire. According to his story: The flames of the Ute Park Fire, which burned around 37,000 acres in this rural part of the state, were extinguished in mid-June, but communities are still grappling with strained water systems, the prospect of flash flooding and the hit to tourism. -Sandia Peak Ski Company knows it’s in for more snowless winters.
The big news this morning is the Ute Park Fire in northern New Mexico near Ute Park and Cimarron, which blew up overnight to 8,000 acres. According to the New Mexico State Forestry update at 7:30 this morning, 12 structures at Philmont Scout Ranch were destroyed, and 150 other structures are threatened. As of Friday morning, Highway 64 is closed between Eagle Nest Lake and Cimarron and State Route 204 is closed at Cimarron. There are evacuation centers at the Eagle Nest Senior Center, Cimarron Elementary/Middle School and the Raton Convention Center. Around the state right now, there are a few other fires burning, including the Kellar Fire in the Lincoln National Forest, the Arena Canyon Fire in San Juan County and the Buzzard Fire in the Gila National Forest.
In an exclusive story published Thursday evening, Michael Coleman reported that U.S. Department of the Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke postponed an oil and gas lease sale in northwestern New Mexico. According to the story: Zinke told the Journal in an exclusive interview Thursday afternoon that “there have been some questions raised” so the Bureau of Land Management will hold off on the sale of about 25 parcels on 4,434 acres within Rio Arriba, Sandoval, and San Juan Counties in northwestern New Mexico. Mark Oswald reported in the Albuquerque Journal on Tuesday that more than 20 acequia and community ditch groups want to overturn a 2013 court decision that approved an agreement between the Navajo Nation and the state of New Mexico settled a decades-old water rights claim on the San Juan River, a tributary of the Colorado River that flows through northwestern New Mexico. Their filing, by Albuquerque attorney Victor Marshall, seeks to toss out the judge’s ruling because he lived and worked on the Navajo Nation in the 1970s. It’s a shocking enough motion that former newspaperman, and current UNM Water Resources Department Director, John Fleck weighed in the issue on his blog this week.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill with a provision that could have a big impact on three national forests in southern New Mexico. Lawmakers voted 232 to 188 to pass the Resilient Federal Forests Act of 2017 Wednesday. The final bill included an amendment sponsored by New Mexico Rep. Steve Pearce that will exempt certain forest thinning, logging, watershed improvement and habitat restoration projects from reviews required under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) and the Endangered Species Act. Speaking on the House floor, Pearce said thinning and logging activities in New Mexico and across the western United States have been “drastically reduced,” contributing to the size and severity of wildfires. “The best way to restore our forests while preserving their ecosystems is the creation of restoration projects that will return them a healthy density,” Pearce said.
First there’s a spark, and then the fire. We all stare at the sky, smell the smoke. After the trees and brush and roots are gone, floods roar through arroyos and down hillsides. Weeds invade as soon as the ground has cooled. Often, the long-term changes aren’t that obvious, especially when compared with flames and floods.
As political winds blow and funding for research ebbs and flows, communities still have to prepare for wildfires. Like the kind of devastating fires New Mexicans have seen erupt in recent years: Las Conchas in the Jemez Mountains in 2011, the Little Bear Fire near Ruidoso in 2012 and that same summer, the largest wildfire in New Mexico’s recorded history, the Whitewater-Baldy Fire in the Gila National Forest. By studying fire history, scientists can help land managers protect vulnerable areas today—before catastrophic fires occur and threaten communities or watersheds. One useful tool is tree ring data. Each year they grow, trees add rings.