7 Apr 2008, 5:53pm
Ecology Management
by admin

Montane Meadow and Open Area Encroachment in the Lincoln Forest, Sacramento Grazing Allotment

Frost, Ric, Casey Roberts, Garrett Hyatt, John Fowler. 2007. Montane Meadow and Open Area Encroachment in the Lincoln Forest, Sacramento Grazing Allotment. New Mexico State Univ. Cooperative Extension Service/Agricultural Experiment Station, Range Improvement Task Force, Report 69.

Full text [here] (12,952 KB)


Frost, Ric. 2007. Just One Match - An Easy Way To Destroy New Mexico. Range Magazine, Spring 2007.

Full text [here] (329 KB)

The second paper is a “popular” version of the first for lay readers, although both are very good and not too technical for most people.

Selected excerpts from “Just One Match“:

It is amazing how much fire one match can cause. Back in the year 2000, one match ignited the infamous Cerro Grande fire by Los Alamos, N.M. This same fire “ignited” an indepth study of Southwestern forest conditions by the state university. This report reveals that the Cerro Grande, Scott-Able, Viveash and several other fires on government lands that same season destroyed approximately 689 square miles of habitat in New Mexico.

The report points out that the intensity of the catastrophic habitat-destroying fires was a direct result of the fuel-load biomass levels created by the Mexican spotted owl environmental lawsuit. Logging restrictions were imposed on government-controlled lands. The study reveals that U.S. Forest Service-controlled lands in New Mexico forests alone had accumulated approximately 1.4 billion board feet of fuel-load biomass buildup between the years 1986 to 1999, as logging declined 82.4 percent during the same period. …

All of the Mexican spotted owl habitat in the Los Alamos area and the owl-nesting protected locations were lost, as were many of the ground-dwelling endangered species. Other endangered and protected habitat areas were also seriously compromised or destroyed by these fires.

The report also points out the loss of an entire cultural timber-harvesting infrastructure due to owl restrictions and the resulting loss of the economic sector to rural communities in the hundreds of millions of dollars. This is in addition to the costs of fire fighting, the personal costs and loss of homes (including the threat to the Los Alamos nuclear facilities in the path of the Cerro Grande fire), as well as the human lives lost as a result of these fires. It is doubtful that the families who lost everything were concerned over the the loss of a few birds.

This study… spanned the past six years on 22 square miles of nonfire-damaged areas in the Lincoln National Forest. Located in south central New Mexico, this is the forest where the Scott-Able fire [2000] destroyed 25 square miles, many homes, and claimed two lives. [The Cerro Grande Fire (2000) was ignited by a National Park Service prescribed fire on the Bandolier National Monument and burned principally in the Santa Fe National Forest. For a news story on the Scott-Able Fire, see here].

Selected excerpts from “Montane Meadows“:


The Region 3 U.S. Forest Service (USFS) Sacramento District Lincoln National Forest, located in south central New Mexico, was designated as a forest reserve in 1902. Woolsey (1911) and Plummer et al. (1904) described the area as containing significant openings with extensive grass-dominated understories with approximately 20–70 trees per acre. Garrett (2001) reports that current conditions of the Lincoln National Forest are primarily dense forest and woodland stands with densities at or above 200 trees per acre and fuel loads in excess of 20 tons per acre. Many of the major forest openings, more commonly known as meadows, have been significantly reduced or altogether eliminated due to tree and woody species encroachment.

Of the total forest area, meadows occupy a fraction of the landscape, but “their beauty and stark contrast with the surrounding forest make them favorite destinations. One only needs to step from a tunnel of dense conifers to a bright oasis of grasses and wildflowers to know that mountain meadows are precious patches of diversity, havens of distinction” (Thompson, 2007). …

These are the major forest openings that are giving way to tree encroachment. Garrett’s report indicates that this phenomenon has occurred as a result of single-species management imposed on Region 3 by adjudication on the Mexican spotted owl court case and other environmental lawsuits. This has impeded multiple-use management, particularly in the timber sector. No matter the cause, the loss of mountain meadows needs to be addressed. Many species rely on them. They are home to various communities of plants that cannot survive under the forest canopy. Deer, elk, and cattle depend on them for forage. Insects, butterflies, and moths rely on meadow flowers for pollen and nectar. Predatory birds use meadows for hunting grounds.

This report evaluates aerial and satellite imagery records of the Lincoln National Forest by decade over a 60-year period from the 1940s through early 2000s. Through digital analysis of the images and field verification utilizing satellite ground positioning system (GPS) equipment, tree habitat and forest open areas were identified. Results were then compared decade-to-decade to determine if woody species encroachment has occurred and to what extent encroachment has affected the habitat. …


When the data are examined in this fashion, all time sets show a steady increase in the area covered by trees, while all but one of the meadow time sets show a steady decline in area covered by meadows. All show a decline in area covered by bare ground. When the time period of 1950 through 1990 is examined, the tree and meadow area coverage remains relatively stable. The most dramatic change in trends was from 1990 through 2000, during which trees increased in area coverage by 12.1% while meadow area coverage decreased proportionately, by 11.7%. The rate of change in tree coverage was 14 times greater in the decade from 1990 to 2000 than from 1950 to 1990.

This drastic increase in tree area coverage occurred during a short 10-year period compared to the previous relatively stable 40-year time period. This 40-year stable period occurred during a time when the Lincoln Forest was managed for multiple uses. Multiple use management in the period since 1990 has been compromised by the single-species Mexican spotted owl restrictions imposed on Region 3 by an environmental lawsuit. This court action restricted multiple use management, especially in the timber sector, halting the removal of biomass through selective timber harvesting.

A separate study, conducted in 2000, of the Region 3 USFS timber sales and harvest records by forest, showed that the Lincoln National Forest average annual rate of harvest from 1971 to 1989 was approximately 12,703 MBF (thousand board feet). In the decade following this 20-year period, from 1990 to 1999, annual rate of harvest fell 76% to approximately 2,995 MBF. Unlike rock, trees continue to grow and regenerate, which accounts for the 12% annual increase in encroachment.

When all of the Region 3 forests in New Mexico were compiled for timber harvest evaluation, it was discovered that New Mexico harvested timber declined 82% (138,485 MBF) in the time period 1986 through 1999. This reduction of approximately 10,653 MBF per year has resulted in an estimated 1,419,405 MBF (about 1.4 billion board feet) buildup of unharvested timber in New Mexico forests. Of this buildup, almost 92% has occurred since 1990, with 78% of the accumulation occurring since 1992 (Frost, 2000). A 2001 report by L.D. and P.J. Garrett of M3 Research evaluated forest conditions over a 100-year period and noted many other studies on the Lincoln National Forest, going back to 1904.These studies indicate that the historical density of this forest at 8,500 to 9,500 feet elevation (AOI study area elevation) was approximately “40–70 trees per acre” (p. E-10) with cumulative fuel loads at “2–6 tons per acre” (p. E-11) and that current densities have increased to approximately “227 trees per acre…an average increase of over 170 trees per acre” (p. E-20). The report concluded that “cumulative fuel loads now exceed 20 tons per acre, or four time the levels of the presettlement period” (p. E-20).

With regard to meadows and open areas, the report states that:

Openings have been encroached upon in all areas. Presettlement period small openings of 1–20 acres are often not identifiable today. Larger parks and glades greater than 100 acres are decreasing in size due to encroachment. On-site water deficits and loss of openings are causing declines in wetlands, seeps and springs, water recharge and contributions to instream flows. In combinations these factors have reduced on-site biodiversity. (p. E-20)

They summarize the causes of this phenomenon with this statement:

Appropriate thinning and timber stand improvements regimes were not implemented in the 1960s–1990s at the levels necessary to reduce tree densities, favor the original species balance, or through time replace the old growth structures. In part, some of these options were not available to the USDA Forest Service due to extensive environmental opposition to management treatments since the 1970s. (p. E-13)

More recently, this situation has been aggravated by the MSO restrictions imposed on Region 3 by the MSO environmental opposition that restricted timber harvest. Given the pattern of encroachment and biomass accumulation observed statewide, the likelihood is that tree encroachment into open areas and loss of biodiversity is occurring throughout Region 3 forests at a rate equal to that demonstrated in the Lincoln National Forest. Projecting this rate into the future, it is clear that unless management practices are adjusted, open areas will continue to decline, forage carrying capacity for all animals will decline, biodiversity will continue to decline, and the excessive accumulation of biomass will enhance the likelihood of catastrophic wildfires. In the worst case scenario, wildfires potentially could destroy forest habitat beyond reasonable recovery. …

This study of meadow and open areas demonstrates not only that the trees have encroached into the montane meadows but also at what rate, at what point in time the changes occurred, and to what degree encroachment occurred across 60 years. …

Habitat area of the meadow prey base for the Mexican spotted owl had remained relatively stable over the 50-year period between 1940 and 1990, during which all AOIs were studied, and has declined significantly since the 1990s. A comprehensive study using the technology can potentially demonstrate how extensively this habitat degradation has occurred and during which time periods the degradation was more pronounced. When coupled with the history of the administration of the area, implications for management policy outcomes can be assessed.

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