MORA, N.M. (KRQE) – The Jemez Mountains could see new life thanks to a project to reforest the area damaged by the Las Conchas Fire. One of the worst fires in New Mexico history, Las Conchas wiped out more than 150,000 acres of wildlife in the Jemez Mountains and it hasn’t been quick to regrow.
“In the last 50-plus years, we’ve seen significant increases in catastrophic fires,” said Owen Burney, an associate professor with New Mexico State University and Superintendent of the John T. Harrington Forestry Research Center. “The Las Conchas fire occurred in 2011 and at that time it was the largest fire in New Mexico’s history, and that fire footprint is pretty devastating, so we’re not seeing a lot of natural regeneration occur.”
Now, the team with the Nature Conservancy and New Mexico State University’s Forestry Research Center is stepping in to get things growing again. Located in Mora, the center is home to the largest forest nursery in the Southwest.
They’ve spent the past few years collecting Ponderosa Pine seeds from cones in the nearby forests. They will eventually be placed in the burn scars where they aren’t growing back on their own.
“A lot of people really think about the tree-planting end of that operation but it really starts years beforehand with the collection of seed to support that restoration effort,” said Joshua Sloan, an associate professor of forestry at New Mexico Highlands University. “It took a full four years before we could get a cone crop we could collect from that would be sufficient to grow up the seedlings to reforest that area.”
They’ve collected more than 250,000 seeds, storing many of them in a freezer. Over the past year, they’ve nurtured them into seedlings in greenhouses.
“When we’re ready to grow those seedlings for the reforestation operation, we plant those seeds,” said Sloan. “We sow those seeds, usually in containers in a greenhouse.”
The seedlings are monitored daily at the site in Mora. Once the hot and dry summer period is over, they plan to ramp up planting efforts in the Jemez Mountains in the next few months.
“What we’re trying to do is create this future for ourselves as well as for that forest system,” said Burney. “These seedlings that we grow here are little bits of hope and I think we all need a little bit of that right now.”
The team is also working on seed collection and seedling growth for other areas of New Mexico impacted by wildfires. Right now, they’re working on replanting in northeast New Mexico which was hit hard by 2018’s Ute Park Fire that burned the Philmont Scout Ranch. You can find out more about their reforesting efforts through the Nature Conservancy website.