The U.S. Forest Service's suspension of permit sales for firewood collection – which has stoked white-hot complaints from New Mexicans looking to gather the fuel as winter nears – has …
The U.S. Forest Service's suspension of permit sales for firewood collection – which has stoked white-hot complaints from New Mexicans looking to gather the fuel as winter nears – has prompted the state's congressional delegation to ask the agency to resume regular activities.
The letter to Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen asks her to "work quickly to respond" to a recent ruling from a federal judge in Arizona that focuses on the Mexican spotted owl. U.S. District Judge Raner Collins called for a stop to all timber management activities in New Mexico's five national forests and one in Arizona because of federal agencies' negligence in monitoring the owl's population.
U.S. Sens. Tom Udall and Martin Heinrich, and U.S. Reps. Ben Ray Lujan, Deb Haaland and Xochitl Torres Small – all Democrats – signed the letter, asking Christiansen to "resolve a variety of issues, including, but not limited to, traditional firewood gathering, tribal cultural activities, and forest restoration and fire mitigation projects."
Meanwhile, the plaintiffs in that court case – the Santa Fe-based environmental group WildEarth Guardians – are asking the judge to exclude firewood permits from his order on Thursday (Sept. 26).
"It was never our intention to affect firewood cutting," said Executive Director John Horning, who claimed Forest Service personnel have been telling people to call WildEarth for the permits.
"That was the U.S. Forest Service ... inciting fear in all sorts of ways and frankly scapegoating us," he said. "It's unprofessional for a federal agency that has broken the law and been held accountable by a judge to direct people to our organization."
A spokesman for the Forest Service said the agency only directed employees to refer callers to a web page that outlines alternatives for those seeking firewood. He also said the Forest Service agrees with excluding firewood permits from the order and reserves "the right to seek further relief for impacted communities through clarification. Fuelwood permit sales are still halted while we await an answer from the court."
Wood permits are still available from the Bureau of Land Management.
The Carson National Forest indicated people who had already purchased wood permits prior to the judge's ruling could use them for the time being, but should try to get their firewood as soon as possible.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency's most recent data on home heating, from 2013, 10 percent of the U.S. population uses wood as the primary heating fuel because it's cheaper than gas or propane.
Wendy Mason, spokeswoman for the state's Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, said Friday that as New Mexicans are preparing for the upcoming winter months, "It's imperative that they are able to get the firewood that they need to heat their homes and even cook. We're hoping for a fast solution just like everyone else."
That department's Forestry Division, which has no jurisdiction over national forest lands, posted a list of alternative sites for gathering fuelwood in New Mexico, including the Bureau of Land Management, New Mexico State Land Office and the village of Corrales.
The Mexican spotted owl, a mottled brown bird whose U.S. territory spans New Mexico, Arizona and parts of Southern Utah and Colorado, was listed as a threatened species in 1993, mostly because of habitat loss due to logging. It is now listed as endangered.
In the lawsuit that initiated the halt to timber activities, WildEarth Guardians argued neither the Forest Service nor the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had collected data to prove that the owl's population had decreased. The judge agreed, saying both agencies were negligent in monitoring the bird's population.
The Forest Service, in response, said it would put an end to all forest management practices such as prescribed burns, tree thinning and issuing firewood permits while its lawyers studied the judge's ruling to clarify just what he wants.
Horning said he hopes Collins "clarifies the scope of the order" to allow the Forest Service to issue firewood permits.
"The Forest Service are the ones who chose to include personal firewood use in their action and they could have, as we have just now done, sought clarification that would not have resulted in any of the hysterics they have created," Horning said.
The NMForestry.com site provides options on gathering firewood. Click on the "announcements" link to access the information.
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