April 5, 2022
New Mexico Highlands University has received $1 million from the federal government to support the New Mexico Reforestation Center’s seed bank and seed collection efforts. The New Mexico Reforestation Center is a partnership between New Mexico Highlands University, New Mexico State University, University of New Mexico, and the New Mexico Energy, Minerals, and Natural Resources Department’s Forestry Division to meet New Mexico’s current and future reforestation needs.
Joshua Sloan, Associate Vice President of Academic Affairs for Forestry and the Reforestation Center at Highlands University, said the partnership was precipitated by Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham’s 2019 Executive Order on Climate Change and New Mexico’s new Forest Action Plan. This executive order brought New Mexico into alignment with the 2015 Paris Agreement aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions, while the Forest Action Plan provides a roadmap for how improved management of New Mexico’s forests can help mitigate some of the effects of climate change.
Sloan and his colleagues at UNM and NMSU were among New Mexico’s top reforestation experts who helped draft the state’s reforestation strategy for the current Forest Action Plan, which serves as a comprehensive guide for all state forestry activities. The idea for the New Mexico Reforestation Center partnership subsequently grew out of discussions about the practical applications and policies needed to support the state’s plan.
“Highlands has a couple of responsibilities,” said Sloan of the university’s role in the partnership. “The main one is that we’re responsible for the academic, educational, and workforce development functions of the New Mexico Reforestation Center—so that is everything from developing the in-house academic courses to workforce development.”
Sloan said Highlands will also be taking the lead on providing professional development for existing practitioners and managers who already work within the forestry field, with nonprofit partners, or with the state’s Tribal natural resource management agencies.
The three universities will also be conducting collaborative reforestation research to determine best practices for reforestation.
“We are still very much in the early days of scientific, evidence-based reforestation in the Southwest,” said Sloan. “There simply has not been much rigorous research in how to do that effectively in this region.”
According to Sloan, students from Highlands University have already been conducting research and planting trees. He estimates that around 14,000 seedlings have been planted in the past 12 months. Sloan said the research strategy is tied to the university’s Center of Research and Excellence in Science and Technology, or CREST, program, which is funded by the National Science Foundation.
“It’s one-of-a-kind in the country, and part of the plan behind it is to integrate the forest restoration research with forestry education, and then implement all of that into applied research to achieve desired environmental objectives,” said Sloan. “At the same time, it’s meeting research and academic objectives.”
Sloan said the primary species of research interest so far include ponderosa pine, quaking aspen, and Douglas-fir.
“Douglas-fir is a species of cultural interest for several of the tribes that we’re working with that we haven’t had a lot of reforestation success historically in this area,” said Sloan. “The species mix that the Reforestation Center will focus on extends to whatever it takes to restore the ecosystems that need to be restored. The operations are objective-driven based on the stakeholders who are involved.”
Sloan said Pueblos in north and central New Mexico have been actively engaged in reforestation work for many years—particularly those hit hardest by the Las Conchas Fire in 2011. He said the areas affected by large fires like Las Conchas are the highest need for reforestation due to the need to stabilize the soil to prevent erosion and protect watersheds. Some of the Center’s partners in reforestation research so far include Philmont Scout Ranch, the New Mexico State Land Office, and Santa Clara Pueblo, among others.
“Watershed protection is really one of the big driving factors here,” said Sloan. “If you’re familiar with the impacts of the post-fire floods on Santa Clara Pueblo, that is a good example of the kind of devastation we can see if we do not have very rapid and effective post-fire restoration work in place.”
Highlands University president Sam Minner said the Department of Forestry at the school is among several programs on campus that will be contributing to vital services in the state in the coming decades, and he believes the new Reforestation Center is necessary for protecting both people and the environment. “As Mahatma Gandhi said, ‘What we are doing to the forests of the world is but a mirror reflection of what we are doing to ourselves and one another,’” said Minner.
Although fires are a natural part of the ecosystem, catastrophic fires that burn hundreds of thousands of acres are the result of decades of fire suppression, which in turn, can lead to unabated erosion.
“We’re looking at burn scars large enough that it could take thousands of years for some of these larger, more severely burned areas to naturally regenerate,” said Sloan. “For a variety of reasons, that is sub-optimal for most of the communities that live in and around those areas. There are significant differences in terms of water quality and quantity coming off a burn scar, as opposed to coming off a well forested, well vegetated area.”
Sloan said research and reforestation efforts will also focus on addressing climate change concerns, and he said they will be working with the Forest Service, Park Service, and other partners to revisit seed transfer guidelines that outline the appropriate seed sources to use on sites for planting.
“The preliminary research indicates that we’re finding better success by moving a species northward in its range,” said Sloan. “Taking, for example, ponderosa pine genetics from the area around Albuquerque and moving it north by one- or two-degrees latitude to facilitate northward migration at a rate that would improve survivability for those populations under climate change scenarios.”
According to Sloan, trees are already adapting naturally and migrating northward on their own, but he said natural rates of adaptation and seed dispersal can’t keep pace with climate change. And although reforestation can appear pricey at face value, Sloan said the cost of not acting is much higher.
“When we start thinking about the other economic aspects of potential fires that are harder to account for, you start adding up the value of the clean water, the value of the carbon sequestration, the recreational value, and the wildlife habitat value,” said Sloan. “When we add up the benefits associated with that, it’s about a 16-to-1 up to a 24-to-1 return on our reforestation investment. So, it’s really a very good investment.”