Hearings and Business Meetings

SD-366 Energy Committee Hearing Room 10:00 AM

Mr. Rick DeIaco

Director of Forestry, Village of Ruidoso

Statement of

Rick DeIaco

Director of Forestry, Village of Ruidoso

Lincoln County, New Mexico

Before the

United States Senate

Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests

Concerning

Healthy Forest Restoration Act, USDA Forest Service and Communities

July 19, 2006

 

 

Mr. Chairman and members of the Subcommittee,

 

Thank you for the opportunity to testify on the progress of the Healthy Forest Initiative (HFI) and specifically on the Healthy Forest Restoration Act of 2003 (HFRA) and its effects on Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) communities.   This testimony will reflect the relationships and collaborations with the USDA Forest Service Region 3 and the Lincoln National Forest and will suggest common themes to opportunities and challenges throughout the Forest Service and Department of Interior agencies.

 

BACKGROUND

 

Ruidoso is located in south central New Mexico in the Sacramento Mountains at 7000 feet of elevation amidst vast stands of Ponderosa pine and mixed conifers.   The population is 8,700 permanent residents with thousands of second homes and a growing number of condominiums, hotels and convention center facilities.  The area is dramatically beautiful and is surrounded by the Lincoln National Forest, Mescalero Apache Reservation and to a lesser degree other federal and state lands.  Tourism and enjoyment of the natural environment is the main economic driver.  A ski resort with 55 trails and elevations up to 12,000 feet draw skiers throughout the winter season.   Ruidoso is four-season seasonal community.

 

In 2000, Ruidoso was assessed by New Mexico State Forestry and the Forest Service for its risk to catastrophic wildfire.  Ruidoso was rated the most at-risk community in New Mexico and the second most at-risk in the nation.  The Village Council quickly got to work and added a forester to staff and followed with a Forestry Department.  It’s the only municipal Forestry Department in the state and among other charges, implements a suite of ordinances mandating fuels management on all private lands.  In addition, Ruidoso recycles to compost 100% of the forest debris collected.  Forest contracting companies have increased from three in 2000 to twenty licensed companies in 2006.  Fifty forest industry related jobs have been created in the past five years.

 

In November of 2000 the Ruidoso Wildland Urban Interface Group (WUI group) was formed and has met monthly for six years.   Members include the Lincoln National Forest, New Mexico State Forestry, BLM, BIA, Mescalero Apache Tribe, Lincoln County, Village of Ruidoso, Village of Ruidoso Downs, NM State Land Office, South Central Mountain RC&D, River Association, and local contractors, companies and residents.  The goals of the collaborative group are to develop and implement a forest health and wildfire protection plan for Ruidoso and surrounding Lincoln County.  In addition it acts as a grant opportunity watershed and think tank to develop forest strategies and assist entrepreneurs in the forest industry.  In 2004, the WUI group transformed this plan into the current Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP) under HFRA guidelines.

 

HFRA AUTHORITY

 

With HFRA only in its third year, Ruidoso and the WUI group thank this committee for the opportunity to suggest and catch unintended consequences so early on in the process.   From a community point of view, having an authority that allows a plan to be developed locally is an enormous incentive.  However, HFRA rolled out with the promise of new dollars in the form of grants and programs to be available to communities with CWPPs for projects on county, municipal and private lands.  It appears only HFRA authority is available and use is limited to projects on Federal lands with alternative funding.  Communities are waiting for grants and programs to precipitate for effective work on non-federal lands.

 

COLLABORATION

 

An emerging challenge within HFRA is “teaching old dogs new tricks”.  It is difficult for some line officers to look at land management from the perspective of collaborative development of goals and objectives.  Some line officers have mindsets that collaboration is more rhetoric than reality.  A significant paradigm change faces agency administrators and line officers.  The act requires real collaboration between Federal agencies and local communities.  Effective collaboration requires skill sets not previously necessary within the agency, although many line officers naturally possess these skills.  Community collaboration is where the rubber meets the road and we see it.

 

What is the status, in that regard, of the agency workforce?  One might consider the “1/3” rule here as it might apply with any large organization dealing with significant change.  That is, 1/3 of agency line officers possess the skills and will easily grasp the concepts of collaboration.  They will in turn maximize HFRA’s powerful tools.  Another 1/3 can be taught and 1/3 lack the necessary skill sets and will struggle endlessly.  Ruidoso is experiencing the latter third in an ongoing project called Perk-Grindstone.  Ruidoso remains at serious risk because of this decision making and unrealized opportunities.  It becomes very evident at the local level when good collaboration occurs; line officers reject pervasive institutional thinking in tough situations and look for new ways to achieve results.  There are some bright spots on the Lincoln in terms of line officers possessing the correct skill sets and Ruidoso hopes their efforts translate to reduced risk to catastrophic wildfire. 

 

Examples of how strong collaborations benefit projects are found funded by the Collaborative Forest Restoration Program in New Mexico.  This Forest Service grant program has enjoyed continued support from Senator Domenici and Senator Bingaman and has turned out close to 80 projects in the past five years.   A successful project in this program must show collaboration in project development with appropriate Federal, State, Tribal, local governments, and to the degree possible, commodity, scientific and environmental interests.  It is kind of like Thanksgiving dinner with the relatives you don’t see too often and may not get along with so well.  The rule is that no one gets any turkey unless everyone agrees to the size of the portion.  It is consensus driven.  When project development is well thought out and inclusive at the front end, there is little or no objection at the public comment phase.    I would encourage review of this program as a training framework for collaboration and multi-party monitoring.    

 

I believe developing and funding a required HFRA program to train line officers how to collaborate with communities and understanding the entrepreneurial spirit would yield great benefit.  Whether it is local capacity building or bidding as the general contractor on stewardship contracting projects, non-agency people are taking risks to engage the Forest Service.  These risks are real and personal.  Agency line officers do not always understand that it is OK for business to make money.  Line officers would benefit from knowing how to be better partners, how to assess real world situations and to arrive at realistic cost-benefit conclusions.  Training programs that include targeting District Rangers and Forest Supervisors could lead to better decisions and a more informed workforce.   It then could follow that, latitude at the regional level and above be afforded to progressive thinking by line officers.  The result would be effective treatments, better utilization of materials and safer communities.  Additional benefits would include improved workforce capabilities and ultimate savings to the taxpayer.

 

 

The next consideration is to have the appropriate performance measures that speak to a desired outcome and include measurement strategies.  A paper (included) with performance goals developed by community forestry groups and the Rural Voices for Conservation Coalition was submitted to the Forest Service earlier this year and could serve as a starting point.  These performance goals support the training I suggest is necessary to effectively move HFRA forward.  The four performance goals are:

 

  • Increase collaboration between public land communities and federal agencies.
  • Build and maintain capacity in public lands communities.
  • Improve forest and watershed condition.
  • Reduce risk from catastrophic wildland fire.

 

 

ACCOUNTABILITY

 

Probably the most glaring disconnect within HFRA is the acres target issue.  It’s the hard acres versus easy acres calculations, double counting of acres and not accounting for real value.  This fuzzy calculus is especially limiting when utilization of small diameter material is possible and not considered best value.  An example might be as follows:

            100 acres are thinned @ $600.00/ acre    = $60,000.00; then, a year or so     later the same 100 acres are burned @ $300.00/ acre           = $30,000.00

 

The dollars per acre reported get calculated as $90,000.00 / 200 acres for a reported cost of $450.00 per acre and 200 acres counted.  Then it could happen that a utilizing contractor comes in with a cut and utilization bid (one time entry) of $750.00 per acre or $75,000.00 they lose the bid. 

 

Acre count should occur only after initial tasking is completely done and the land is ready for long term maintenance burning.  Given that utilization treatments have slope consideration; acres treated with full utilization in Ruidoso are ready for maintenance burn now.  Condition classes are reduced immediately in those areas and we are not waiting years for prescribed burn windows to open.  In addition, the general public sees a completed project. 

 

The WUI group feels strongly that small diameter material removal and biomass utilization is a land management issue and not just an energy production issue.  Ruidoso Municipal Schools are preparing to build a new middle school and are interested in incorporating biomass heating.  I believe all public buildings in Ruidoso should consider this abundant resource.  The long term source of this material would come from Forest Service lands.

 

Another down side of the acres target problem can appear when considering WUI acres.  In Ruidoso, community protection received less priority than acre targets.  Currently, only two of twenty-seven NEPA ready projects on the Lincoln are in the Ruidoso area.  The WUI geography (map) was expanded to accommodate easy acre push and burn treatments northeast of the community to achieve acre targets.  Treating acres on the northeast side of a community in southern New Mexico is mostly ineffective as the winds historically come from the southwest. 

 

A 5,500 acre project called Perk-Grindstone was assessed as the number one Forest Service priority in 2000 when the WUI group started because it is located directly southwest of the community and its major potable water reservoir and treatment plant.  This project remains hung up without a NEPA decision and remains unfunded.  Line officers are compelled to meet acre targets at the expense of community protection.  This is absolutely unacceptable!   Village Council signed a resolution encouraging the Lincoln to move forward with Perk-Grindstone earlier this year.  The Village collaborated with an environmental group that had objections and resolved issues pertaining to MSO PACS in the unit.  We help were we can.  Inaction on public lands is impeding Ruidoso’s ability to implement ordinances on private land.  I get calls with angry residents asking why they should spend money treating their property when there is nothing done on the other side of the Forest Service fence, literally.

 

It appears the Program Assessment Rating Tool (PART), a strategy to get the “best value” for work done might actually do the opposite given the existing performance measures.  Transformation of the condition class (acre targets) as a performance measure is vastly outweighing other measures such as collaboration and utilization based on PART.  This leads to the “easy acre”.  Wildfire can burn 5000 “easy acres” and no one blinks.  When wildfire burns 1000 acres and a community loses 29 homes, as Ruidoso did in 2002 with the Kokopelli fire, it is devastating.  Where is the “best value”?  Communities deserve a better system of accountability and line officers need realistic performance measures to make the right decision and achieve HFRA goals. 

 

A more general issue affecting accountability is agency mobility.  The normal rotation of personnel with the agency reduces commitment and accountability.  The line officer (District Ranger) I started with in 2000 had been there for many years and was committed to the community.  Decisions were made based on the best value for community safety.  He retired in 2002.  Since then I have seen personnel changes at: the district level – Ranger, FMO, AFMO, Range staff, Timber staff, Fuels specialists and below; the Forest level – Supervisor, Fire & Aviation staff, Timber staff; and even a new Regional Forester and some associated staff.    Communities understand this movement is inevitable to some degree but some way to maintain a legacy strategy would yield stability to collaborations and overall confidence in agency policy.  Goal 1.4 in the above mentioned performance measures paper (attached) offers some ideas.

 

 

SUMMARY

 

Ruidoso is deeply concerned and frustrated that a commitment made five years ago remains unfulfilled.  There are always plenty of excuses but the facts are that the condition class in Perk Grindstone that contributed to Ruidoso’s rating of second highest to catastrophic wildfire in the nation remains.  We have all witnessed the devastation of the Cerro Grande fire in Los Alamos, New Mexico in 2001.  Our citizens do not want to see Ruidoso follow a similar pattern of unrecognized risk and inaction on Forest Service land due to a lack of urgency.  

 

Ruidoso is committed to doing its part with its citizens and takes responsibility for its own wildfire protection on private land.  We have our own Community Forest Management Plan in place (www.ruidoso-nm.gov) and the WUI group has collaborated and developed our CWPP for additional public and private land.   The Village and the WUI group stand ready to move forward with HFRA when funding programs become available.  I respectfully submit the following recommendations:

 

  • Develop training programs and performance measures that emphasis collaboration and commitment to legacy strategies.
  • Make collaboratively designed projects the priority for planning (NEPA) and funding.
  • Identify strategic acres not on their low cost of treatment but on their ability to protect assets at risk.  Those areas must be identified in collaboration with the local fire councils and public safety officials (CWPPs).
  • Stop double counting acres, even if the money comes from different line items.  Double counting has the unintended consequences of prohibiting utilization and not getting the best value for the taxpayer dollar.
  • Don’t count the acre until the fuels treatment is complete.  That is, until the acre is ready for maintenance burning.  Currently the areas treated by the Forest Service by pile and burning have so many piles on them (lack of burn windows) that the fire risk has increased.  

 

 

If HFRA will be used to treat strategic acres that: are defined by collaboration with communities; will allow for true accounting in terms of acres treated and unit costs; and will encourage reduction to fire risk class I; then it will be the useful tool the congress and the President intended.

 

Thank you for the opportunity to testify before this subcommittee.  I would welcome any question you may have.

 

 

Rick DeIaco

Director of Forestry

Village of Ruidoso

313 Cree Meadows Drive

Ruidoso, NM 88345

(505) 257-5544

 

 

Attached:        RVCC Performance measures

                        Current WUI map

                        2001 WUI map

                        2001 Action Plan Matrix