What do you do after the end of the world?

“What do you do after the end of the world?”

By LCI Senior Research Specialist Sasha Stortz

That was the rhetorical question an interviewee asked me a couple of years ago, as we talked about land management in the eastern Jemez Mountains of New Mexico. By end of the world, she was referring to the combination of drought, high severity fires like Cerro Grande (2000) and Las Conchas (2011), and post-fire flooding that has transformed a 300,000 acre area of the eastern Jemez over the past two decades, replacing forests with shrubs, and scouring once-lush canyon bottoms. Despite the post-apocalyptic language, the dramatic change that we see in the Jemez invokes a variety of reactions for people, from grief for what’s been lost, to acceptance of nature’s dynamism, and curiosity for what’s to come.

Bandelier National Monument is at the center of this disturbance, with over 85% of their lands altered by drought, high-severity fire, and flood. In 2015 they invited the LCI to assess the potential for collaboration focused on landscape-scale research and restoration planning in the eastern Jemez. We interviewed about 50 people representing 23 organizations, and identified a number of common interests and opportunities that could be advanced through an effort now referred to as the East Jemez Landscape Futures (EJLF).

In May 2018, we achieve a milestone for EJLF when together with Bandelier National Monument and the Burned Area Learning Network, we organized a field trip and working session focused on restoration and research in the eastern Jemez. The field trip was led by Santa Clara Pueblo, and focused on Santa Clara Canyon, once a community gathering point for picnicking and fishing with friends and family. The major fires and the floods that followed them changed the path of the creek, filled it with sediment, and denuded its banks. Up slope, all that was left of dense pine and fir forests were dead standing tree trunks. The canyon remains closed to the public due to safety concerns, but hardworking crews have been busy installing thousands of small-scale structures like Zuni bowls and rock dams, using available materials like fallen trees to catch sediment and slow water in hopes of slowly bringing function back to the ecosystem. The field trip brought together over forty managers and researchers from surrounding areas, none of whom had seen this restoration effort before. Together, we hiked up tributaries carefully sculpted to slow erosion, and examined small, shade-covered tree seedlings replanted in areas that had lost trees.

This restoration effort offers inspiring example of what can be done in altered areas, but the scale of the impacted landscape is daunting. Given the limited resources available for restoration and the thousands of acres of altered landscape, it’s important to understand where areas might recover on their own, where restoration has the best chance of success, where ecological transition to a new state like oak woodland instead of pine forest is inevitable, and the uses and experiences that people in the region want to have going forward. With this in mind, a smaller group of researchers and managers met the following day to share information about the research and restoration efforts underway across different land management jurisdictions, and to identify opportunities to work together.

As I co-facilitated this conversation with my colleague Collin Haffey of The Nature Conservancy, I was inspired by the care and motivation that participants brought to the conversation, and the level of knowledge that was shared across organizations. Hearing what others are doing lends momentum to this collective challenge, and each person in the room represented a catalyst, ready to spark action with their own networks of people who care about this landscape too. We walked away energized, and with a number of ideas to move forward, including a scientific conference focused on local research efforts, seed collection strategies for restoration plantings, comparison of recovery in canyons with active restoration and without, and grants to apply for in partnership.

As I write this, it’s June in the Southwest. It’s hot, dry, windy, and much of the public lands around Flagstaff are closed, an extreme fire prevention strategy. We’re waiting eagerly for monsoons as we monitor news about big fires burning in New Mexico and Colorado. High frequency, low intensity fire is a natural part of Southwestern ponderosa forests, and we’ve got to accept the presence of fire in the places we love, and adapt to live with it. Yet uncharacteristic fires like Cerro Grande and Las Conchas and their aftermath require adaptation on a whole other level. As fire events increase in size and severity, the lessons that residents, researchers, and managers in the eastern Jemez are learning will become even more relevant to folks outside the Jemez. For me, one lesson is clear: what may feel like the end of the world also marks new beginnings; chances to work together, learn from each other, and to chart a path forward into the unknown that blends creativity, science, local values, and collaboration.

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