Along with 35 people from Albuquerque, Santa Fe and Taos, from teenagers to retirees, I joined New Energy Economy’s Las Conchas hike last Saturday, a stark and informative experience that displayed the realities of climate change on New Mexico’s forests.
The hike was led by self-described “global climate change ecologist” Henry Adams, whose research on the effects of climate change in the Southwest is fairly extensive and connects drought with insects/pathogens with higher temperatures with megafires. The Las Conchas fire at the time was the largest forest fire in documented New Mexican history, burning more than 150,000 acres in the Jemez Mountains west of Santa Fe in the spring of 2012. It (again) threatened Los Alamos National Laboratory, which houses nuclear material.
We hiked the eastern rim of the Valles Caldera and viewed the now dead forest patch and considered the affect Las Conchas had on this beautiful wilderness area and what it portends for the future.
Forest fires are nothing new to me. My first was in southwestern Wyoming in 1994.
I was camping in the national forest when a wildfire broke out, burning only one acre, but it was very alarming. Two years later, on May 5, 1996, my home and the homes of many of my neighbors were destroyed in the Hondo Fire in northern Taos County, which burned 7,500 acres, about half the size of the Bandelier fire which had just been contained the week before.
Little did I know that this was only the beginning of what was to become a regular event in the southern Rockies, spring to autumn.
Forest fires are as old as forests themselves and have always served to burn off debris and regenerate forests. As more and more humans came to inhabit this arid region, we began to use more resources and take up more land. More humans, more need for water, as well as electricity and automobiles which burn more fossil fuels spewing more carbon-dioxide and carbon-monoxide into the atmosphere, creating greenhouse gases.
This greenhouse effect raises the average global temperature, which evaporates more water into the atmosphere. In the arid desert Southwest, much of that moisture is carried to other regions and is not replenished. Forests become dryer and more susceptible to fire and disease, as we have seen with numerous beetle infestations over the past two decades.
The National Forest Service, in an effort to “protect” the forest – as well as a lot of new private property – instituted a policy of fire suppression, allowing debris to accumulate for far too long, making the forest susceptible to catastrophic fires.
Over the past two decades, we’ve also seen lower-than-average snowfall and rainfall here, making conditions much better for further megafires to proliferate.
We rely on heavy snowpack in the winter and monsoons in the summer to replenish our reservoirs, aquifers and rivers to make life possible in this region. But the impact of increased human population has created a strain on that system.
The city of Santa Fe has had to invest millions of dollars for the Buckman Diversion to meet the increased demand for water in the expanding city, further depleting an already endangered river. Increased development in forested areas has increased the strain, leading to further deforestation and drought.
It’s all connected.
Continue reading: Check out NM’s burn scar to see crisp evidence of climate change