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The Giving Trees

17 May 2022

Caring for the forest is a complicated endeavor. It might feel counterintuitive, but in order to protect the forest, we have to cut some of it down. Forest thinning is one of the best ways to prevent devasting wildfires.

In 2014, TAOS joined the collaborative effort of the Rio Grande Water Fund which “invests in the restoration of forested lands upstream so we can secure pure fresh water.” Our part of the project helps facilitate a climate change adaptive forest and spacing out the canopy strategically to make it more fire resilient. (Read more about the thinning process here). Each year, our saw crew treats between 200-300 acres of our forest removing dead and down trees and thinning the canopy.

This year, however, was different. In December 2021, Taos Ski Valley experienced a historic wind event that blew down hundreds of acres of trees in the valley and surrounding areas. We had to re-evaluate the strategy in order to deal with the sheer number of windthrow. Alex Mithoefer, Forestry Supervisor, and his team rose to the task.

This is an oversimplification, but there were 3 strategies for clean-up to choose from: let it decompose, burn the dead and down, or try to salvage the wood. Letting it decompose could be dangerous because the fallen trees could be a breeding ground for beetles and other insects that have the ability to drastically damage the forest’s health. The most sustainable choice is to salvage the wood. This process cuts the trees in a way so that the wood is merchantable, and the remaining product is chipped which releases nitrogen in the soil. In addition, by cutting the trees in this manner, the carbon stored in the trees is permanently sequestered while burning it would have released the carbon back into the atmosphere. We chose this responsible strategy even though it was more labor-intensive and expensive.

Wood holds a special sort of reverence in Northern New Mexico. Many homes in Taos rely on wood for heat even if electric heat is available. The Bureau of Land Management New Mexico offers a permit for collecting firewood in BLM land from dead and down trees for as low as $5/cord making wood heat much more affordable for many families. By choosing to cut the wood to be merchantable, Alex and his team became a part of this culture that surrounds firewood in the region. In addition to being able to be used to build homes with the cut timber, we donated more than 350 cords of wood–more than 210 to the Taos Pueblo and 160 cords to the Rocky Mountain Youth Corp who will distribute the wood among some of our community’s most vulnerable.

While protecting our wilderness is our top priority, a nice side-effect of the forest maintenance work is incredible gladed skiing/riding!