What could’ve been an extreme hardship for households that use wood for heating evaporated Tuesday with the announcement that the personal cutting and collection of wood in Cibola and five other National Forests could resume.
The Forest Service said in a press release Tuesday that permit sales will resume immediately.
A Court-ordered injunction last week had suspended all timber management activities on the five national forests in New Mexico and the Tonto National Forest in Arizona. The federal court's ruling was related to the recent court-ordered injunction in the case of Wildearth Guardians vs. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service concerning the Mexican spotted owl. The environmental group is accusing the USFWS of failing to track the endangered owls.
Southwestern Regional Forester Cal Joyner said, "We are pleased with this modification, which highlights the fact that we all want to do right by the communities we serve and reduce unnecessary burdens on communities that depend on the national forests for their sustenance. I want to assure you that we are committed to continuing our work to protect wildlife and wildlife habitat from catastrophic wildfire, and we thank you for your ongoing support, understanding and patience."
Considering the potential hardships over the winter months caused by the court’s injunction, New Mexico’s congressional delegation last week asked the U.S. Forest Service to address environmental concerns quickly and to allow firewood gathering and other activities to resume.
Accordingly, a letter was sent last Friday to U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen.
“We strongly encourage the Forest Service and other parties to the lawsuit to work quickly to respond to the ruling and resolve a variety of issues including, but not limited to, traditional firewood gathering, tribal cultural activities, and forest restoration and fire mitigation projects,” the letter states. “We likewise strongly urge the Forest Service to undertake the action necessary to comply with the Endangered Species Act to allow the resumption of forest activities and minimize impacts to traditional uses and projects that improve the long-term health of the forest.”
The letter was signed by U.S. Senators Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, and Representatives Ben Ray Lujan, Deb Haaland, and Xochitl Torres Small.
Senator Heinrich, on a visit to the New Mexico Bureau of Geology Tuesday, said he was happy and relieved about the modification to the injunction.
“One, this makes a huge impact on New Mexico. We have thousands and thousands of families who rely on wood every winter,” Heinrich told the Defensor Chieftain. “And second, there is no overlap between the Mexican spotted owl habitat and the piñon-juniper projects that are identified as fuel source areas by the National Forest Service.”
Other activities, including stewardship contracts, timber sales, thinning and prescribed burns, remain suspended in order to ensure compliance with the ruling, pending clarification or modification of the injunction.
Heinrich said it shouldn’t have been an issue in the first place, adding that certain other critical forest activities should also be considered.
“Getting this injunction narrowed is really the key, because there are also other uses, such as prescribed fires that will hopefully be getting narrowed out of this injunction,” Heinrich said. “And that’s to the benefit of wildlife as well. There are a lot of things caught up in this injunction that were not necessarily the target of the injunction.”
Also on Tuesday, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham said in a press release she was grateful “for the court’s quick action in modifying what would have been a devastating situation for so many New Mexicans who rely on these permits throughout the winter months.”
“I want to thank our Congressional delegation, federal partners and our state Forestry Division for using their platforms to advocate for a fix and for immediately doing the work of identifying potential contingency plans,” Lujan Grisham said. “When we pull together in the same direction, when New Mexican families’ best interests come first, we can always find solutions and steer clear of harmful unintended consequences.”
Shayne Martin, USFS deputy director of communication for the Southwestern Region, said Mnday the Forest Service and the Wildearth Guardians had been in agreement as far as personal firewood goes.
“We’re both in agreement on that, and have been since the beginning,” He said.
A separate filing last week by Wildearth Guardians stated that "despite the low bar for injunctive relief in an Endangered Species Act case, Plaintiff WildEarth Guardians does not believe that personal firewood cutting and gathering on national forest lands is associated with any possibility of irreparable harm to the Mexican spotted owl or its habitat.”
Martin said that 550 permits are on file for personal use firewood cutting locally. Also, there are 270 permits for commercial use and 11 categorized as free.