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US forest chief, New Mexico governor sign stewardship pact

November 14, 2019
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New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, talks at the Randall Davey Audubon Center on the outskirts of Santa Fe, N.M. on Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019. Grisham signed a shared stewardship pact with the U.S. Forest Service, aimed at a closer state-federal relationship when it comes to improving forest health and risk management related to wildfires and drought.(AP Photo/Morgan Lee)
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New Mexico Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, talks at the Randall Davey Audubon Center on the outskirts of Santa Fe, N.M. on Thursday, Nov. 14, 2019. Grisham signed a shared stewardship pact with the U.S. Forest Service, aimed at a closer state-federal relationship when it comes to improving forest health and risk management related to wildfires and drought.(AP Photo/Morgan Lee)

SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — The chief of the U.S. Forest Service and New Mexico’s governor signed an agreement on Thursday aimed at strengthening relations as they work to represent diverse interests concerning natural resources on public forest lands.

New Mexico became the ninth state to sign a so-called shared stewardship agreement, as Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen and Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham met at the base of a mountain basin that safeguards urban water supplies for the state capital.

The agreement urges more collaborative planning and highlights concerns about wildfire, invasive species, drought and forest insects and disease — describing the increasing severity of wildfires. No specific funding is part of the agreement.

State and federal forest supervisors say they plan to evaluate opportunities, threats and alternatives for risk management. The agreement arrives amid a local standoff between the federal judiciary and U.S. forest managers related to tree cutting, wildfire threats and the fate of the threatened Mexican spotted owl.

The U.S. Forest Service is asking a judge to reconsider an order that has halted commercial tree-cutting across five national forests in New Mexico and one in Arizona.

The order was issued last month in a 2013 case that alleged the federal authorities failed to consider the effects of thinning and logging on the threatened Mexican spotted owl and its habitat. Environmentalists have said the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Forest Service have failed over the years to track the bird’s numbers.

Christiansen, formerly Arizona’s top state forestry official, said President Donald Trump’s administration supports a new process for decision making that emphasizes local interests.

“The president put out an executive order on our conditions of our forests in this nation,” she said. “And it was very clear that our priority is working at the state and local level, that we are not going to dictate the priority and (be) the sovereign federal government.”

Lujan Grisham, a Democrat, said she hopes the agreement can resolve some enduring confrontations.

“Our tendency has been to focus on our authorities and our independence and our disagreements, which means we never solve them,” she said.

The signing ceremony was followed by a discussion of forest, wildfire and water management issues, attended by representatives of wildlife conservation groups, local electric cooperatives, a community forest council and at least one wood-products company.

Sawmill owner Matthew Allen of the western village of Milan, whose business producing rough lumber, wood chips, mulch and fire pellets has been scaled back as a result the federal court suspension of cutting, was among those at the meeting.

“We’re talking to the state right now about potentially helping us get some land to harvest, to limp along for a couple of months while this gets cleared up,” said Allen, who is contemplating layoffs.

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This version corrects the first name of Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen.