Signs of life in the Gila National Forest

Jul 25, 2012

Even after the flames have died down, the impacts of a wildfire persist. Without tree and grass roots to absorb rainfall and hold soil in place, flooding can be a big problem.

In the wake of the Whitewater-Baldy Fire—which burned almost 300,000 acres in southwestern New Mexico—officials in the Gila National Forest have been working to get ahead of the summer rains and next year’s snowmelt.

Over the past few weeks, helicopters have seeded 26,000 acres of the forest. The seed mixture includes plants native to the high country—Arizona Fescue, Mutton Grass, Mountain Brome, and Prairie Junegrass—as well as barley.  The quick-growing barley helps give native plants a foothold, says Julia Faith Rivera, public information officer for the Whitewater-Baldy Fire’s Burned Area Emergency Response Team.

In places, plants are already two- to three- inches tall. “It’s remarkable to see how just a little bit of moisture can get those seeds up and growing,” says Rivera. Crews are now laying straw mulch on 14,000 acres in the forest.

Meanwhile, the Forest Service is also partnering with state and county officials to improve roads and culverts and protect downstream communities and private property from flooding.

“We will continue to see impacts with an increased rate of runoff in our creeks and tributaries, so what we’re doing as a land management agency is looking to harden some of the infrastructure to help divert that runoff,” she says. “We’re doing what we can to protect life and property, but also our precious natural and cultural resources.”

As for wildlife, Rivera says some species have suffered—including native fish whose streams have filled with ash and sediment.  

Individual animals do die during wildfires, but elk and deer herds remain abundant.

And Michael Robinson of the Center for Biological Diversity says endangered Mexican Gray Wolves appear safe after the giant Gila fire. “There were no known mortalities from the fire, but of course, wolves have evolved with natural fires, so it’s not that surprising.”

To view more images of the seeding operations in the Gila, visit: http://www.flickr.com/photos/gilaforest