Carson National Forest communications guru retires amid a changing climate

By Cody Hooks
chooks@taosnews.com
Posted 5/31/17

After 10 years as the public face for the Carson National Forest, Kathy DeLucas is retiring as the forest's public information officer.DeLucas' career in professional communications started with a …

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Carson National Forest communications guru retires amid a changing climate

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After 10 years as the public face for the Carson National Forest, Kathy DeLucas is retiring as the forest's public information officer.

DeLucas' career in professional communications started with a journalism degree from the University of New Mexico and a job on the graveyard shift for KOB-TV in Albuquerque. From there, she took on the task of representing two military bases, Los Alamos National Lab and the Inyo National Forest in California.

Before DeLucas left the U.S. Forest Service offices on Cruz Alta Road for the last time Friday (May 26), she sat down with The Taos News to talk about how the forest -- and the agency charged with its care -- has changed over the years.

Timber production was the "big topic of conversation" in the 1990s for the federal agency, DeLucas said.

But an evolving awareness of climate change has led forest managers to re-evaluate their role in the vast landscape of public lands.

"We've come to realize climate change is very real, that forests are disappearing. Science is only validating that climate change is happening at a more rapid rate than we had anticipated. Our forests and mountains are going to look very different in the future, so we need to try to build forests that are resilient and can withstand those changes," DeLucas said.

The realization has spurred further scientific inquiry into how climate change is impacting places like Northern New Mexico -- with its arid landscape of piñón, juniper, ponderosa and sage. And it has changed the way national forests are putting boots on the ground.

"What did these forests look like 100 years ago?" DeLucas asked. For one, wildfires burned the landscape. Nearly a century of official Forest Service policy demonized wildfires with the help of its mostly beloved mascot, Smokey Bear.

"But now," DeLucas said, "it's, 'How do we get back to that?'"

A recent lightning strike west of the Río Grande sparked a small and low-intensity fire that became the Hondito Fire. Forest managers jumped at the opportunity to use a naturally occurring fire to cleanse the ponderosa forests of dried limbs and litter -- bringing the Forest Service back in line with the natural rhythms of the forest.

Yet doing the work of the Forest Service has gotten harder, DeLucas said. "We're realizing federal funds may not be there in the future or are certainly going to be less," she said.

That's why the Forest Service and other federal agencies have warmed to corporate and nonprofit partnerships that bring in the money, community goodwill and other resources necessary to "doing the mission" of the agency. The Forest Service is working hand in hand with the Río Grande Water Fund (a project of the Nature Conservancy) to restore the Río Grande watershed. And the agency is also working with Coca-Cola to restore streams in the Valle Vidal -- an overlogged unit of the Carson National Forest that was owned by Pennzoil until the 1980s.

"These partners bring a lot to the table and offer projects we might not be able to get to otherwise," DeLucas said.

DeLucas said she's always been struck by just how much the community in Northern New Mexico relies on the forest -- be it "getting outside" with a simple hike or using the forests for hunting, livestock grazing or wood collecting.

Those traditional uses are sometimes in competition with more modern recreational uses. But DeLucas said, "I think it's great for people to get outside, but we have to respect each other and learn to get along."

After a 30-year career "usually behind the desk" working with congressional staffers, the media and the 140 employees of the Carson National Forest, the 57-year-old DeLucas told The Taos News it's time to tip the scales toward the "life" side of the work-life balance.

The first day of retirement is set aside for one of the more mundane tasks of life: cleaning the garage. But DeLucas said she'll soon be getting back to the Valle Vidal, her favorite spot in the Carson National Forest.

"I love listening to the quiet. No motor sounds. All you hear is the birds and crickets and running water. Or you hear the breeze blowing through the aspens," she said.

"Things are going to be tight, but you've got to enjoy life," said DeLucas.

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