By Michelle Werts

It’s called the Land of Enchantment. From mountains to desert, from national forests to historic monuments, New Mexico is indeed a land of many wonders. Keeping all of its wonders healthy and intact, though, is proving a bit complicated.

Biking the Zuni Mountains in Cibola National Forest
Biking the Zuni Mountains in Cibola National Forest. Credit: USDA

Southwest of Albuquerque lies Cibola National Forest, and within Cibola loom the Zuni Mountains. Here, delicate forest restoration is at work. Wildfires in recent years left some of the forest badly damaged, which is why American Forests Global ReLeaf helped reforest 340 acres of the forest in 2011. However, many other parts of Cibola are overgrown, meaning conditions are ripe for more wildfire. As a result, in 2012, the Zuni Mountain Collaborative Landscape Restoration Project, one of the 23 projects American Forests supports through its work on the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration (CFLR) steering committee, brought together more than 20 partners to help make the Zuni Mountains more resilient to wildfire, drought, bark beetles and climate change. Two of the primary ways that the project partners hope to accomplish the goal of removing hazardous fuels is through thinning and controlled burns — sometimes forest restoration is not about putting trees in the ground, but making sure that our forests are healthy and diverse. In its first year, the project was able to clear 1,700 acres of hazardous fuel, and all was going well … until the Zuni bluehead sucker reared its head.

Living in just a few select streams in New Mexico and Arizona, the Zuni bluehead sucker population has shrunk dangerously low. So low that in January, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) proposed that the sucker be designated endangered on the Endangered Species List. Now, getting on this list is a long, arduous task (we’re talking years of review), but regardless, the discussion has warranted some concern for the Zuni CFLR project.

Cibola National Forest
Cibola National Forest. Credit: Joel Kramer

As reported by E&E News, if the Zuni bluehead sucker is listed, all thinning projects will need to be coordinated between the U.S. Forest Service and FWS because the way the forests are thinned might impact the streams, which, in turn, will impact the sucker. However, there is something else that might impact the streams: wildfire. Ash could have a serious negative impact on the sucker’s streams, causing harm to its population. Is this the restoration equivalent of a rock and a hard place or what? If you thin the forests to make the forest safer from wildfire, you might damage the streams. If forest fires break out, they might also damage the streams. As a result, the mantra should be: Proceed with caution.

One thing everyone is in agreement on, though, is that healthy forests mean healthier streams and happier fish — all are goals worth pursuing.

And a little more than 100 miles up the freeway, those same goals are being pursued in another CFLR project. This one focuses on the Jemez Mountains, but that’s a tale for tomorrow.