ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. – Projects to reduce the risk of wildfires and protect water sources in the U.S. West have created jobs and infused more money in local economies, researchers say, and they were funded by a partnership between governments and businesses that has become a model in other countries.
A team from the U.S. Geological Survey reviewed work being done in several counties along the New Mexico-Colorado border that make up the watershed of one of North America's longest rivers, the Rio Grande.
The review shows how public-private partnerships could become a critical component for safeguarding the land and benefiting the economy amid the threat of federal funding cuts and worsening wildfires brought on by climate change.
The study focused on 2018, when the partnership, called the Rio Grande Water Fund, doled out $855,000 to contractors in the region. The spending supported an estimated 22 jobs, ranging from forest thinning to research, environmental consulting and fence removal. That translated to more than $1 million in labor income and $1.9 million in benefits for the regional economy.
Spending in the area supported an estimated 15 jobs and more than $1.1 million in economic output for the 13 counties in the Rio Grande's upper watershed, according to the findings.
In all, The Nature Conservancy, which launched the partnership, estimates the work has had an economic impact of about $18 million within five years.
“We’ve always known the water fund created jobs to get the work done. Now, we know the true economic impact,” said Steve Bassett, head of planning and data analysis for the advocacy group.
The organization and others have been pushing for land managers to consider more landscape-level restoration work as a hedge against climate change. In New Mexico, Colorado and other parts of the American West, officials persistently warn that hotter, drier conditions are ingredients for more intense fires and those types of blazes can cause more harm by damaging the soil and clogging watersheds with ash, sediment and debris.
The U.S. Bureau of Land Management announced last week its plans to build and maintain up to 11,000 miles (17,703 kilometers) of strategically placed fuel breaks across several Western states to control wildfires across nearly 350,000 square miles (906,500 square kilometers).
The work will involve manual, mechanical and chemical treatments, including prescribed fire and targeted grazing. It comes after the agency set a record last year for the number of square miles — 1,322 (3,424 square kilometers) — treated to reduce the risk of wildfire.
The U.S. Forest Service also has been playing catch-up, but that could become more challenging as the Trump administration's proposed budget for the next fiscal year calls for cutting funding for some research and zeroing out spending for certain forest restoration initiatives.
That could mean partnerships like the Rio Grande Water Fund will become more prevalent. Officials at The Nature Conservancy say it's serving as a model for other communities in the U.S. West and some in India and South Africa.
The advocacy group started the initiative in 2014 to restore large swaths of land as a way to protect and bolster the region's dwindling water resources.
More than 80 local, state and tribal partners have signed on since then, bringing in $5 million in private investments and leveraging nearly $50 million in public funding. More than 219 square miles (566 square kilometers) have been treated with thinning, prescribed burns and managed natural fires and an additional 515 square miles (1,335 square kilometers) are in the planning pipeline.
The investors in New Mexico range from municipal water utilities and federal agencies to banks and breweries.
Brent Racher, owner of Restoration Solutions LLC said his four-man team has gotten consistent work through the projects financed by the Rio Grande Water Fund. His company is based in a small community near the edge of the Cibola National Forest in central New Mexico.
“I’ve been able to invest in more equipment and plan for the future,” he said. "Employee stability trickles down to the social fabric of our community.”