By Austin Rempel
THE SACRAMENTO MOUNTAINS of southern New Mexico are known as “sky islands” — isolated, high-elevation refuges surrounded by “seas” of range and desert. The transition between the hot, flat, arid basin floor and the high rugged mountains is striking. Sierra Blanca — the highest peak in the range at 11,981 feet — rises more than 5,533 feet above the valley bottom. Elevation changes everything — in the span of a few miles, cactus and grasslands give way to dense, moss-covered evergreens.
Between 1984 and 2008, wildfires and bark beetle epidemics killed one out of every five trees in the American Southwest. Scientists believe that the region is already warmer than it has been at any time in the past 1,000 years. Widespread tree death will continue as the climate becomes drier and hotter.
Because of their unique topography, sky island mountain ranges present one of our best opportunities to conserve forests in the region.
Foresters from the Lincoln National Forest and the Mescalero Apache Tribe, who share management of the Sacramentos, are grappling with ways to help the ecosystem adapt to the changing climate. The stakes are high as many of the unique plants and animals that live in these mountains will have nowhere to go if forests disappear.
In June 2012, the Little Bear Fire scorched 44,330 acres at the northern tip of the mountain range, burning 242 homes and making it the most destructive fire in state history.
The fire killed all adult trees across many parts of the landscape, hampering the forest’s ability to re-seed itself. Seven years later, grasses and shrubs are the only plant life in the most severely burned areas. The absence of young trees is a troubling sign. As we lose forest cover, we also lose vital ecosystem functions. Compared to grasslands and shrub fields, healthy forests store more carbon, provide habitat for more kinds of wildlife, and have deeper root systems that allow rainfall to seep into the soil.
Trees are especially important for protecting water supplies in the south-west. Most of the annual rainfall in the region occurs in brief, violent storms that can cause erosion and dangerous flash flooding. This is especially true when combined with charred, water-repellent soils left after wildfires. After the Little Bear Fire, summer rains scoured the burned hillsides and washed ash and debris into Bonito Lake. The reservoir provided 60 percent of the drinking water for Alamogordo (pop. 31,248), a city nestled at the base of the mountains.
Last year, American Forests worked with the Lincoln National Forest to plant 10,000 trees — Ponderosa pine, Douglas-fir, and Southwestern white pine — in watersheds around Bonito Lake. This year, we are collaborating to restore another area that burned in 2002, with the goal of slowing erosion and gullying around several springs and waterways.
Planting is just one part of an ambitious restoration effort being undertaken by the U.S. Forest Service to help these unique and threatened forests survive in a hotter, dryer climate. American Forests is proud to be their partner and lend our support.
Austin Rempel writes from Washington, D.C., and is American Forests’ forest restoration manager.