- NMSU Agricultural Experiment Station
Owen Burney and the small staff at New Mexico State University’s John T. Harrington Forestry Research Center in Mora braced for the worst as the facility came under threat of what has now become the largest wildfire in New Mexico history.
The Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire in northern New Mexico rapidly intensified earlier this month and pushed into the center’s 118-acre property, endangering the only research facility in the Southwest dedicated to restoring forested lands devastated by severe wildfires. It shuttered the center’s operations and prompted a whirlwind chain of events to save elements of crucial reforestation work.
“It’s very ironic, right? We are a research center primarily focused on restoring post-fire landscapes,” said Burney, superintendent of the center, which is part of NMSU’s Agricultural Experiment Station, “and here we are being threatened by a fire that’s interfering with our ability to do our work.”
When Burney joined the center 10 years ago, he knew the dense forest and dry conditions surrounding the facility could potentially fuel wildfires. But he never fathomed being entangled in a catastrophic blaze that has charred more than 300,000 acres in less than two months.
Still, that was the reality he began navigating in late April, when the Hermits Peak Fire merged with the Calf Canyon Fire, creating a single raging inferno. The situation took a drastic turn shortly after U.S. Sen. Martin Heinrich of New Mexico toured the center on April 20.
“We weren’t really thinking this was going to be problematic for the research center,” Burney said, “but then the fire took a big run one day and went from about 300 acres to 3,000.”
That spurred Burney into action. His top priority was keeping his staff safe, followed by saving the center’s vast seed bank, then housed in a walk-in freezer at the facility.
Tammy Parsons, the center’s nursery manager, moved the bank of more than 3 million tree seeds to freezers at her home in nearby Las Vegas. But then the fire shifted toward Las Vegas, forcing evacuations Parsons and others from the center then worked with the Agricultural Experiment Station to once again relocate the seed bank, this time to NMSU’s Los Lunas Agricultural Science Center.
On May 1, the fire breached the center’s sprawling property, more than half of which is natural forest.
“I’ve fought fires, and I’ve been around fires, but I’ve never had a structure threatened on a personal or professional level,” he said.
Three days later, the Agricultural Experiment Station, New Mexico Department of Agriculture and NMSU’s Cooperative Extension Service secured a state police escort to rescue tree seedlings from the center. Burney and his staff left behind about 95,000 seedlings when they evacuated Mora. Each year, the center produces up to 300,000 seedlings to aid reforestation efforts in New Mexico and the Southwest.
Working with a team of employees from NMSU, the New Mexico Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department, and the Taos Land Trust, Burney and his staff retrieved about 75,000 seedlings over two days in a mission dubbed “Operation Rescue Baby Trees.”
Leslie Edgar, associate dean of NMSU’s College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences and director of the Agricultural Experiment Station, was part of the recovery effort.
“We were able to rescue seedlings used for replanting post-fire environments such as this significant and massive fire,” she said. “We will need these trees for both research and operational plantings this year.”
Burney said the team was unable to recover the remaining seedlings.
Today, the center is still standing, but its fate remains unknown.
“That center is highly critical for NMSU, for the Agricultural Experiment Station, for the College of ACES and for the state. We will do everything we can to get it running again,” she said. “We thank Chancellor Dan Arvizu, Vice President for Research, Creativity and Strategic Initiatives Luis Cifuentes, College of ACES Dean Rolando A. Flores Galarza and our Board of Regents for their unwavering support during this crisis.”
For now, staff members are working remotely and maintaining the rescued trees at a nursery in Santa Fe run by EMNRD’s Forestry Division, and Burney is working to assess the fire’s toll on the center’s research and production operations.
He said transporting the seedlings to a new environment likely caused stress that may affect their overall quality, but he believes the vast majority can be planted successfully.
“Without our tree planting efforts after fire, it could take over 300 years for some areas to regenerate, if it occurs at all,” he said.
The bigger impact will be on the center’s research activities. Several projects, including trials involving tree treatments, were lost and will have to be restarted from scratch.
“It sets us back at least a year, if not more,” Burney said. “We’ve lost opportunities to obtain good data from both field and lab measurements, and we’ve lost the ability to implement certain treatments. This growing season, we were experimenting with a drought-conditioning treatment that requires constant attention and measurements. We had to stop our efforts because of the fire, and there’s no way for us to start it up again this year.”
Educational opportunities for students who planned to collect field data over the summer near the center are also on hold.
Burney said the fire serves as a stark reminder of the need for a regional reforestation center, an initiative he’s been actively pushing for several years with his collaborators at the University of New Mexico, New Mexico Highlands University and EMNRD’s Forestry Division.
“I hope it is an eye-opener to the public, legislators and professionals that we’re going to continue to see this pattern as we see changes in the climate and the inability for us to manage our forests at a scale that we need to,” he said.
Burney advocates for a two-pronged approach in forest management that emphasizes fuel reduction on a massive scale through activities such as thinning, prescribed burning and pile burning. He also calls for a strategic science-based planting program to restore watershed, wildlife habitat and recreational areas.
“Rebuilding our forests isn’t just about bringing back the trees,” he said, “but rebuilding New Mexico’s water resources, wildlife habitat, recreational havens, communities and our way of life.”
Edgar added, “The NMSU Agricultural Experiment Station and the Cooperative Extension Service are committed to ensuring we have the research and educational programming needed to be successful in the post-fire season. We are making plans today to ensure we can support the state as we recover from these devastating fires.”