Mr. President, welcome to New Mexico. We wish your first visit to the land of enchantment as a leader of the free world goes well. We know you get regular briefings on our wildfires, but it will be good to see you here Saturday as New Mexicans need to hear from their Commander-in-Chief.
Sir, a lot of New Mexicans are angry. They are angry with the feds after two burns directed by the US Forest Service got out of control and merged in the Las Vegas area to create the Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire, the largest wildfire in the world. history of the state. It has burned down more than 340 homes in northeastern New Mexico since April and forced up to 18,000 people to evacuate. It devastated 317,000 acres of our precious forests, which take generations to develop.
Their anger is not new, however, Mr President. Resentment toward the Forest Service, which controls nearly a third of the state’s forest land, has been simmering for decades. Agency policies have limited the collection of firewood and grazing, creating a powder keg of neglected forests in a time of climate change and historic drought.
We appreciate that you acted quickly over a month ago and granted our Governor’s request for a Presidential Disaster Declaration for Colfax, Lincoln, Mora, San Miguel and Valencia counties. Residents shouldn’t have to wait for the fires to be put out to start rebuilding their lives. Rapid approval from the Federal Emergency Management Agency will help deliver millions of dollars in relief to New Mexicans faster, helping to rebuild roads and bridges, water control facilities, buildings and utilities, parks and other recreational facilities.
Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham, who invited you here, is on the verge that the federal government should cover 100% of wildfire recovery costs and waive the usual 25% non-federal counterpart from local governments. And the money needs to be tracked to make sure it gets to those who need it.
The Black Fire burning in the Gila National Forest and the Cerro Pelado Fire between Lake Cochiti and Jemez Springs are also ravaging the state. We depend on outdoor tourism and we’re going to need help restoring our riparian forests so they don’t remain ponderosa pine wastelands prone to flash flooding and landslides. The Forest Service manages 25% of our fishing habitat, and agency officials are now predicting ash will spill into streams, rivers and acequias, which could overwhelm water treatment facilities and harm to water quality for years to come. The Gallinas River, the source of drinking water for the city of Las Vegas, is threatened by flooding and greater damage to the watershed.
We also need better local consultation before any prescribed burning on federal lands. Forest Service fire management practices should never start another wildfire.
While you’re here, there are a few other long-standing issues you should be aware of.
The federal government, the state of New Mexico, and its pueblos and tribes are partners in nation defense and land conservation. We are inextricably linked by our military bases, research laboratories and vast tracts of federal lands.
Yet our Downwinders are still not covered by the Radiation Exposure Compensation Act 77 years after Trinity, fentanyl and other illegal drugs continue to cross the southern border of the country and into our state, and a fourth generation Clovis milkman does not can’t get federal compensation for thousands of cows he had to euthanize because of toxic chemicals at Cannon Air Force Base.
We hope to have your ear on these inheritance issues, Mr. President.
We need the federal government to be a good partner and make our state, our forests, and our people whole again. We hope your visit will be productive and we hope to see you back here soon under happier circumstances – when you can truly enjoy and appreciate our Land of Enchantment.
This editorial first appeared in the Albuquerque Journal. It was written by members of the editorial board and is unsigned because it represents the opinion of the newspaper rather than that of the editors.