Plan calls for reforestation of N.M. wildfire damage area

SANTA FE – Federal officials are proposing to plant hundreds of thousands of seedlings as part of an effort to reforest areas charred by one of the largest wildfires in New Mexico’s recorded history.

The Santa Fe National Forest is looking for public comments on its plan for helping the Jemez Mountains recover from last year’s Las Conchas Fire. The 30-day comment period starts Saturday.

The fire, sparked by a falling power line on June 26, 2011, raced across the southern edge of the mountain range. It burned through 244 square miles of tinder-dry forest, destroyed dozens of homes, threatened one of the nation’s premier government laboratories and scorched nearly two-thirds of Bandelier National Monument.

The proposal calls for planting 425,000 ponderosa pine and Douglas fir seedlings on 1,800 to 2,510 acres within the burn scar to the west and southwest of Los Alamos. Officials said they are choosing to focus on easily accessible areas that are more prone to regrowth.

The planting – all to be done with hand tools – is expected to begin next spring, when soil temperatures warm.

Forest documents acknowledge that the reforestation effort will take decades. The hope is that the plantings will eventually prevent erosion, help restore natural hydrological functions and improve wildlife habitat, specifically for the Jemez Mountains salamander, which is being considered for federal endangered species protections.

Biologists who have been studying the elusive salamander said the Las Conchas Fire burned nearly 18,000 acres of salamander habitat.

Surveys done following the fire show nearly half of the acreage burned lightly. In those areas, nature can take its course.

However, there are many places – entire mountainsides and canyons – that were obliterated and left bare by the flames. Complicating the reforestation effort is the fact that vast patches within these severely burned areas were left without any living ponderosa trees, meaning there were no seeds to start the natural regeneration process.

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