GOOD

Up In Smoke: Electric Cigarettes, Bark Beetles, and New Mexico's Environmental Challenges

With wildfires, water shortages and deforestation plaguing the state, New Mexico might want to look into that "Land of Enchantment" motto.


It’s easy to see why Eastern New Mexico is referred to as “Little Texas.” The same proliferation of pump jacks dot the landscape here as it does in its neighboring state and gas is cheaper than anywhere in the country outside the greater Texas region. After five days in Odessa, West Texas I’m anxious to cover some new ground, and I can’t seem to stop tinkering with the AC or scrolling through music until I settle into the flat, shrubby southeastern expanse of the "Land of Enchantment."
Just outside of Roswell, a deep, lush valley cuts west and into the picturesque mountain town of Ruidoso before tumbling back over the peaks into a distilled vision of the Southwest. I finally opt for the new Walkmen album and relinquish the AC in favor of the cool breeze coming through the windows.
The recent scars of the Little Bear Wildfire are the only things complicating my desire to zone out to the sound of Hamilton Leithhauser’s warbling voice. One of the most destructive wildfires in New Mexico’s history, it burned 44,000 acres and destroyed 254 structures, the most of any one fire in the state’s history. Heading into Socorro, I pass over the now less-than-formidable Rio Grande, referred to by my father even in rainy years as the “Rio Pathetic.” Currently dammed to a halt upstream, this nearly 2,000-mile river defining most of the Texas-Mexico border is overtaxed by demographic and precipitation upsurges in the region.
I’ve arranged for an interview at the Bosque Del Apache National Wildlife Refuge, a renowned birder’s paradise and bird migration hub. I pull into a nearly empty visitor’s center and a park volunteer swooning over his recent sighting of a rare roseate spoonbill entertains me as I wait for Gina Dello Russo, a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service ecologist.


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“The Middle Rio Grande Bosque is considered one of the longer, more extensive riparian areas in the desert Southwest,” she says after taking a seat at a long conference table in a nearby meeting room. With all the vibrant colors outside, it takes a minute to adjust to the room’s muted grey and brown pallet. “Even with climate change, which will affect all the linkages in the ecosystem, as long as the river is still functioning then wildlife can be protected. It’s when you move outside of the boundaries in which a river functions that things start to break down and you lose the processes that protect wildlife, like native plant regeneration and insect and berry reproduction.”
Dello Russo speaks cautiously, parsing her sentences to make sure she says what she means in both her personal capacity and as an employee of the federal government. What should fill the silences between her pauses is the fact the Rio Grande is suffering from excessive demand, with cities upriver such as Albuquerque and Rio Rancho getting more and more thirsty. For now, flows through the Bosque remain adequate, but that doesn’t come with any future guarantee, though Dello Russo remains cautiously optimistic.
“I don’t think people like what they’re seeing with water rights and land-use changes in New Mexico,” says Dello Russo referring to the process of landowners along the Rio Grande selling their water rights to cities and developers (oftentimes upriver, which reduces downstream flows). “I don’t think they like what they’re seeing in terms of sprawl and subdivisions coming in where there’s not really enough water for them.”
A hotter and drier climate as predicted by climate change models in the Southwest won’t only make water tougher to come by, but will also invite catastrophic forest fires. Parts of the Middle Rio Grande Bosque are already closed to the public due to extreme fire danger. Earlier this month an electric cigarette was found to be the spark that ignited a 350-acre fire along the Bosque just north of Albuquerque.
To get another perspective, I head into the mountains to meet with William deBuys, longtime resident of Northern New Mexico and author of A Great Aridness: Climate Change and The Future of the Southwest. I’m confident deBuys will speak his mind as he’s already written it into his book. About an hour and a half northeast of Santa Fe, deep into the Santa Fe National Forest, we sip green tea and admire the mountainside that deBuys has called his backyard off-and-on since the 1970s when he homesteaded the land.

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“A lot has changed up here, like this little invention of indoor plumbing,” says the Maryland native. “That’s a good one, especially during the winter months.”
Reflecting on his life in the mountains he has the professorial air and calculated delivery of someone who spends a lot of time thinking things through, often with a stunning view as a backdrop.
“Right now if you could choose what you’ll be reincarnated as, picking a tree in the West would be a really bad choice,” says deBuys. “A better choice would be a clonal shrub.”
According to deBuys several factors are working against trees in the Southwest: an increase in forest fires, insatiable bark beetles and other insects, and record-setting heat and drought. What will grow back in place of burned or dying forests is not always clear. “We’re losing gigantic expanses of forests to these fires,” says deBuys. “And they’re not going to grow back the same way.”
According to deBuys forests in the Southwest are far too dense. He attributes this to both a very wet period from the early 1970s to the mid-1990s as well as too much fire suppression.
“The most effective forest management would really be aggressive thinning and prescribed burn programs,” says deBuys. “We need to practice triage too. We’re not going to hold onto ecosystems at the lower, drier limit of their range. No matter how smartly they’re gardened, they’ll still be lost to greater dryness.”
The forest surrounding us looks pristine to me, dense mixed conifers such as ponderosa pine rising gradually along the ridge, but it suffers from the same problems. “All of this is too dense, I hope it doesn’t all go up in smoke,” deBuys says with an overarching wave of his hand. “I hope I get to be lucky.”
Does that make him a climate change optimist or pessimist?
“People ask me that all the time, I tell them that actually I’m a pessimist, but neurochemically I’m an optimist,” he says with a slight smirk. “The future is grim but the sunrise is beautiful.”
This is the second of four pieces exploring energy and the environment in the American Southwest. Read the first in the series. \n
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