Tree thinning in TSV canyon provides glimpse of future forests

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Along the banks of the Río Hondo in the canyon leading up to Taos Ski Valley, six local wildland firefighters were felling the smaller trees in the densely forested Cuchillo campground Wednesday (Aug. 16).

If all goes according to an elaborate plan by the Carson National Forest, the Nature Conservancy, the Rio Grande Water Fund and myriad other partners, the thinning project at the base of the TSV road will be a small window into the future of the forests in the greater Taos Valley.

"We want to show the public and residents what we mean. If there's one place for a demonstration, this is it," said Laura McCarthy, associate state director of the Nature Conservancy.

For the past three years, the Taos Valley Watershed Coalition has been putting together a "vision and plan for all Taos Valley watersheds," McCarthy said. By bolstering ecological health of forests and riparian environments like the campgrounds along the Río Hondo, the coalition also aims to protect the headwaters of the Río Grande from catastrophic wildfires of the sort that could imperil drinking water for over one million people.

In the next six years, the coalition is hoping to treat over 600,000 acres of at-risk forests in the valley, starting with the TSV canyon.

The U.S. Forest Service spent a century suppressing all wildfires. But fire, McCarthy said, "is nature's way of thinning overgrown forests.

Because smaller, weaker trees weren't routinely culled by nature, should a fire ever start at the base of the TSV road, the topography could funnel and fan the fire up the canyon, ravaging the area and setting off a chain of potentially devastating consequences.

As more of the TSV corridor is treated in the coming years, crews will get as close to the boundary of the Columbine-Hondo Wilderness as possible, creating a mosaic of fire breaks to complement the natural rocky barriers throughout the canyon.

The work, McCarthy said, will also hopefully generate jobs as private contractors are hired for thinning work and commercial firewood collectors have more areas from which to harvest.

According to Gabriel Romero, silviculturist on the eastern zone of the Carson, the Cuchillo del Medio and the Lower Hondo campgrounds will be thinned in the coming weeks. Signs will eventually be installed to showcase the type of landscape-scale restoration work going on throughout the Taos Valley.

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