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THURS: FEMA taps former NM disaster agency head to run fire claims office, + More

The Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire burn scar viewed from the Hermits Peak summit in May, 2023.
Patrick Lohmann
Source NM
The Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire burn scar viewed from the Hermits Peak summit in May, 2023.

FEMA taps former NM disaster agency head to run Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Claims Office - By Patrick Lohmann, Source New Mexico

The Federal Emergency Management Agency has selected the former head of New Mexico’s disaster response agency to lead the federal office providing $4 billion in compensation to survivors of the state’s biggest-ever wildfire.

M. Jay Mitchell was appointed by Gov. Susana Martinez in 2014 to run the state Department of Homeland Security. He is a fifth-generation New Mexican, a former Air Force colonel and was a senior adviser to IEM, a global security consulting firm, according to biographies on the state and company’s websites.

Mitchell’s hiring comes about three months after the departure of Angela Gladwell, a longtime FEMA employee who led the creation of the newly established Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Claims Office. Congress tasked FEMA with overseeing the compensation fund for victims of the wildfire caused by two botched prescribed burns in mid-2022.

Fire survivors and their attorneys have repeatedly criticized the office for the slow release of funds, bureaucratic delays and missed legal deadlines to provide payment offers. They also called on FEMA not to replace Gladwell with another federal bureaucrat and instead hire someone from New Mexico who understands its law and culture.

In a news release about Mitchell’s hiring, U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-NM), a sponsor of the compensation bill, said he was glad that FEMA announced new leadership to steer the office and quicken compensation.

“The new Claims Office Director must prioritize working with local communities to build trust, communicate effectively to address misinformation, and get money out the door as soon as possible,” Lujan said.

U.S. Rep. Teresa Leger Fernandez, in a statement, said she was “relieved FEMA heeded our calls to choose a new director… with strong New Mexico ties.”

Mitchell is expected to begin in May, FEMA spokesperson John Mills said in a news release. Mitchell did not respond to a request for comment Wednesday evening.

He will lead the joint recovery office in New Mexico, overseeing both the claims office and local implementation of existing FEMA disaster programs, particularly the Public Assistance program that reimburses state and local public entities for disaster-related costs.

“Jay Mitchell is joining a team of dedicated public servants working to help New Mexicans recover from the wildfire through both our claims office and disaster recovery operations,” said Tony Robinson, administrator for the FEMA region that includes New Mexico, in the news release.

Mitchell’s selection comes after additional criticism about the hiring process.

The job opening was listed for seven days, which some survivors said was too short a window to draw qualified New Mexico applicants. Colt Hagmaier, a senior FEMA official, said at a forum on April 8 that the office received a significant number of applicants and that the agency was committed to “hiring someone who understands the mission in New Mexico.”

According to an archived biography on the IEM website, Mitchell served more than 26 years in the United States Air Force and went on to serve as the state’s homeland security and emergency management secretary.

After retiring from the military, he returned to Afghanistan and served in what his state biography described as a senior advisor to the deputy Minister of Defense for intelligence. He then returned to New Mexico and recently served as the village manager for Angel Fire. He is also the president of the David Westphall Veterans Foundation, based in Colfax County, according to the group’s website.

In the news release, FEMA officials said Mitchell would be joining the office at a time of “operational improvements” that have hastened compensation payments.

As of April 17, FEMA has paid more than $500 million, $247 million of which was paid since Jan. 1 of this year. That’s about 13% of the total awarded by Congress.

“Jay Mitchell will continue to build upon these improvements to meet the needs of those impacted and ensure all eligible claims are paid,” said Ben Krakauer, a senior adviser to the FEMA administrator, in the news release.

Albuquerque Public Schools dropout rate rises - By Rodd Cayton, City Desk ABQ

More students have dropped out of Albuquerque Public Schools this year than last.

Associate Superintendent Mark Garcia said the dropout rate for the first semester of this school year is up to 1.8%, compared to 1.5% for the same time last year.

He said APS is projecting the full-year rate to be 5.2%, versus 4.2% for 2022-23.

Garcia said officials are already working on the issue. He said officials are looking at data on students’ habits and mindsets and at root causes that lead some to quit school.


According to one APS survey, 44% of APS ninth-graders reported feeling “slightly” or “not at all” connected to an adult on campus.

“This was a huge red flag, a call to action for us,” Garcia said.

Other possible causes include inconsistent transitions from middle school to high school and a lack of opportunities for students to recover credit.


He said APS will respond to the issue by supporting ninth-grade students and their families more.

Garcia said the district has been using interventions for students at risk of dropping out; looking at attendance, behavior and academic performance data to identify those students

“But now we’re also adding agency, belonging and connectedness,” he said, adding that a district-wide credit recovery strategy is being developed.

Board President Danielle Gonzales asked which student groups struggle the most and the barriers they face in completing their studies.

Garcia said English language learners are among those who struggle. He said the lack of a sense of belonging can lead to poor attendance, which affects academic performance.

“If you don’t feel like you belong in a space and you have no connection, your attendance begins to decline,” Garcia said. “And we know that when attendance declines, it’s hard to keep up your class. And when you can’t keep up with class and you fail a course, it’s a spiral. And that’s where we as adults … need to intervene, intervene early, and support that student.”

Gonzales also asked about key out-of-school factors that might hinder students from completing high school, including food and housing insecurity.

Garcia acknowledged those factors and said APS is connecting students and their families to resources that can help with those barriers.


Garcia spoke during an update to the board on progress related to postsecondary readiness, one of four goals outlined in the district’s Emerging Stronger strategic plan.

His presentation also covered efforts to increase the levels of students enrolling in and completing more college or advanced academic courses and earning industry certifications or bilingual seals.

Garcia said that while APS is not on track to meet its 2028 goal of lowering the dropout rate, it is on pace for its other postsecondary readiness goals.

He said that one-third of district high school sophomores have been identified as having “AP potential,” a reference to enrollment in advanced placement courses.

Garcia said House Bill 171, which passed this year and updated graduation requirements, presents an opportunity for APS to make changes that will benefit students’ postsecondary readiness. He said the law requires next-step plans for all eighth-graders, and the plans will help steer those students toward pathways as they enter high school, with some bound immediately for AP classes.

Garcia said that the district’s progress in seeing students earn bilingual seals is worth celebrating. A student can earn a bilingual seal on his or her high school diploma by completing a dual-language program. Garcia said 1,392 earned them in 2022-23, compared to 191 in the program’s infancy in the 2016-2017 school year.

Board member Josefina Dominguez asked about strategies for using culturally or linguistically relevant instruction.

Garcia said the strategy starts with using high-quality instructional materials in the classroom that are culturally relevant.

“That’s the first thing that we can do,” he said. “ And then also moving it along to family engagement. And when schools plan family engagement activities, are they thinking about all the different persons within the community?”


The Board of Education next meets Wednesday, May 1 at 5 p.m. in the John Milne Community Board Room at district headquarters, 6400 Uptown Blvd. It will also be viewable on the APS Board of Education YouTube Channel.

New Mexico Supreme Court elects new Chief Justice Daniel Montaño, KUNM News

The New Mexico Supreme court has elected a new chief Justice to serve the land of enchantment.

Justice David K. Thomson was elected by his colleagues on the five member court to serve a two-year term replacing Shannon Bacon, who served as Chief Justice since 2022, according to a press release.

Thomson, a Santa Fe native, was appointed to the supreme court in 2019 and won an election to maintain his position in 2020.

Before that he served as a judge on the First Judicial District Court, was the sole practitioner at a private practice law firm, and held several positions with the Attorney General's Office, including as director of the litigation division.

The Chief Justice serves as the administrative authority of the court, in charge of personnel, budgets and general operations of all state courts, and presides over Supreme Court hearings and conferences.

Often, the Chief Justice also serves as an advocate for Judiciary matters in the legislature and other governmental proceedings.

Whistleblowers outline allegations of nepotism and retaliation within Albuquerque's police academy — Susan Montoya Bryan, Associated Press

Several members of the Albuquerque police academy's training staff who were dismissed from their duties last summer filed a lawsuit Wednesday outlining allegations of nepotism and retaliation by leadership within the force.

The whistleblower complaint centers on a requirement that male cadets shave their heads with a razor daily. One cadet — the son of a police commander — was found to have violated the policy and wasn't initially truthful with training staff when asked whether he was following through with the practice.

The cadet was dismissed from the academy last August following an internal investigation, but the lawsuit states the decision was reversed in less than 24 hours. The plaintiffs deduced that the commander had intervened on behalf of his son and that they were dismissed from the academy and reassigned to other positions in the field because they reported the violation.

In a letter to Police Chief Harold Medina, the plaintiffs described an abuse of authority and suggested that the commander's intervention was inappropriate and nepotistic.

"We have done nothing wrong," they stated in the letter, which was submitted as part of the complaint. "We have acted to report ethical violations and to protect the public interest in ethically trained law enforcement officials, and we should not suffer retaliation for doing so."

It wasn't until a month later that the department responded with a notice that an internal investigation would be initiated and it would include possible hazing of a cadet. According to the lawsuit, it was the academy commander who had instructed the training staff to reinstitute "old school" policies and a more "military" style of training at the academy.

Gilbert Gallegos, a spokesperson for the Albuquerque Police Department, told The Associated Press that the city takes hazing allegations very seriously.

"Those allegations, as well as the allegations in this lawsuit, will be addressed in court," he said.

It's unclear whether the shaving policy is still part of the cadet handbook.

The beleaguered police department has been grappling with other recent internal investigations, including the mishandling of DWI cases by some officers over a period of years and a traffic crash involving the police chief that seriously injured another driver.

The seven plaintiffs who brought the whistleblower complaint made up the academy's entire training staff and had more than 100 years of combined experience, said their attorney Levi Monagle. They are seeking damages for lost wages, emotional distress and harm to their reputations.

The lawsuit stated that the findings of the internal investigation that followed the cadet being reinstated have yet to be shared with the plaintiffs. It was completed by a third party in December. While the plaintiffs believe it found no evidence of hazing, they were issued reprimands for "unspecified violations" of city policies.

The training staff had said they were given no explanation for their removal from the academy or explanation for their reassignments. They stated that the removal of officers from positions for which they apply and are tested — without explanation or notice or opportunity to be heard — is "highly unusual" and a violation of the police department's collective bargaining agreement.

Legislature’s interim session will include more focus on child welfare; water - By Danielle Prokop, Source New Mexico

New Mexico legislative staff presented the tentative agendas for subcommittee meetings dedicated to child welfare and water scheduled in the summer and fall, as the interim session kicks off for lawmakers.

Charles Sallee, director of the nonpartisan Legislative Finance Committee which studies and files reports on state government agencies and policy, outlined its plans for child welfare and water before the lawmakers Tuesday.

The subcommittee meetings are slated for June and September, but no firm dates yet. Reports from those meetings will go to a larger interim committee, and ideas can continue into potential legislation to be debated when all lawmakers convene for 60-days in January 2025. Makeup of the subcommittees, which can be legislators from both the state House and Senate, will be determined in the future.

The current agenda topics for the June child welfare meeting include an overview of the accountability and performance measures for state agencies, and what prevention or intervention measures work before taking a child out of their home.

In September, lawmakers will focus on child welfare workers and developing the workforce.

For the water subcommittee, the governor’s strategic water supply pitch that stumbled in the last 30-day session will be on the agenda. Additionally, oil and gas rules around water and setbacks from a health perspective will also be reviewed.

The subcommittees aren’t the only plan for the interim session.

Wednesday morning, Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham called for a special legislative session on July 18, which could shuffle agendas for future summer and fall committee meetings.

Additionally, the legislature passed Senate Memorial 5, which establishes a task force made up of a series of governor and legislative appointees to assess and improve the New Mexico Children, Youth and Families Department.

Approving the task force’s members is slated for Thursday’s agenda. Sallee said Wednesday that the committee was “waiting to approve one or two more members,” before Thursday.

Sallee also said the Annie E. Casey Foundation – which produces reports such as the Kids Count child well-being study — is supporting additional research on New Mexico children. Presentations will be made to the Health and Human Services Committee and the Legislative Finance Committee.

Some of the topics in child welfare that will be further explored in the interim session, he said, include federal investments in evidence-based interventions before the state removes children from their home.

Another is looking at how to divert low-risk cases into receiving services while continuing investigations into abusive situations.

Third, the committee will look at how the state is using Medicaid dollars, which are used for children’s treatment but also for parents’ behavioral health or medical treatments for substance use. Further, what the state can do to professionalize the workforce and expand it. And finally, address child welfare system oversight and accountability.

New attorney joins prosecution team against Alec Baldwin in fatal 'Rust' shooting - By Morgan Lee Associated Press

An attorney has been added to the special prosecution team that is pursuing an involuntary manslaughter charge against actor Alec Baldwin in the fatal shooting of a cinematographer on the set of the Western movie "Rust," court officials confirmed Thursday.

The district attorney for Santa Fe has appointed Erlinda Johnson as special prosecutor to the Baldwin case, which is scheduled for trail in July. She was sworn in Tuesday.

Baldwin has pleaded not guilty to an involuntary manslaughter charge in the shooting of Halyna Hutchins during an October 2021 rehearsal at a movie-set ranch on the outskirts of Santa Fe.

Baldwin, the lead actor and co-producer for "Rust," was pointing a gun at Hutchins during rehearsal when the revolver went off, killing Hutchins and wounding director Joel Souza.

Johnson's experience as a criminal defense and personal injury attorney include representing former New Mexico secretary of state Dianna Duran, who resigned from elected office in 2015 amid revelations she used campaign funds to fuel a gambling addiction. Duran received a 30-day jail sentence after pleading guilty to embezzlement and money laundering charges.

Johnson previously worked as a federal prosecutor on drug enforcement and organized crime investigations after serving as assistant district attorney in the Albuquerque area.

Prosecutors are turning their full attention to Baldwin after a judge on Monday sentenced movie weapons supervisor Hannah Gutierrez-Reed to the maximum 18 months in prison at a state penitentiary on an involuntary manslaughter conviction in the death of Hutchins.

Prosecutors blamed Gutierrez-Reed for unwittingly bringing live ammunition onto the set of "Rust," where it was expressly prohibited, and for failing to follow basic gun safety protocols. She was convicted in March at a jury trial.

Defense attorneys for Baldwin are urging the judge to dismiss a grand jury indictment against their client, accusing prosecutors of "unfairly stacking the deck" in grand jury proceedings that diverted attention away from exculpatory evidence and witnesses.

Special prosecutors deny those accusations and accuse Baldwin of "shameless" attempts to escape culpability, highlighting contradictions in Baldwin's statements to law enforcement, workplace safety regulators and the public in a televised interview.

Biden administration moves to make conservation an equal to industry on US lands - By Matthew Brown Associated Press

The Biden administration on Thursday finalized a new rule for public land management that's meant to put conservation on more equal footing with oil drilling, grazing and other extractive industries on vast government-owned properties.

Officials pushed past strong opposition from private industry and Republican governors to adopt the proposal.

The rule from the Interior Department's Bureau of Land Management — which oversees more than 380,000 square miles (990,000 square kilometers) of land, primarily in the U.S. West — will allow public property to be leased for restoration in the same way that oil companies lease land for drilling.

The rule also promotes the designation of more "areas of critical environmental concern" — a special status that can restrict development. It's given to land with historic or cultural significance or that's important for wildlife conservation.

The land bureau has a history of industry-friendly policies and for more than a century has sold grazing permits and oil and gas leases. In addition to its surface land holdings, the bureau regulates publicly-owned underground mineral reserves — such as coal for power plants and lithium for renewable energy — across more than 1 million square miles (2.5 million square kilometers).

Interior Secretary Deb Haaland said the changes would "restore balance" to how the U.S. government manages its public lands. The new rule continues the administration's efforts to use science to restore habitats and guide "strategic and responsible development," Haaland said in a statement.

But Republican lawmakers and industry representatives blasted the move as a backdoor way to exclude mining, energy development and agriculture from government acreage that's often cheap to lease. They assert the administration is violating the "multiple use" mandate for Interior Department lands, by catapulting the "non-use" of federal lands — meaning restoration leases — to a position of prominence.

"By putting its thumb on the scales to strongly favor conservation over other uses, this rule will obstruct responsible domestic mining projects," said National Mining Association President Rich Nolan.

The rule's adoption comes amid a flurry of new regulations from the Biden administration as the Democrat seeks reelection to a second term in November.

Government agencies in recent weeks tightened vehicle emissions standards to cut greenhouse gas emissions, finalized limits on PFAS chemicals in drinking water and increased royalty rates for oil companies that drill on public lands.

About 10% of all land in the U.S. falls under the Bureau of Land Management's jurisdiction, putting the agency at the center of arguments over how much development should be allowed on public property.

Environmentalists largely embraced the changes adopted Thursday, characterizing them as long overdue.

Trout Unlimited President Chris Wood said conservation already was part of the land bureau's mission under the 1976 Federal Lands Policy Management Act. The new rule, he said, was "a re-statement of the obvious."

"We are pleased to see the agency recognizing what the law already states — conservation is a vital use of our public lands," he said.

Wyoming Sen. John Barrasso, a staunch Biden critic, on Thursday said he will introduce legislation to repeal the public lands rule. The Republican lawmaker alleged it would block access to areas that people in Wyoming depend on for mineral production, grazing and recreation.

"President Biden is allowing federal bureaucrats to destroy our way of life," he said.

But Democratic Rep. Raul Grijalva of New Mexico said protecting public lands has wide support among the American people.

Oil, gas and mining companies "have had the upper hand on our public lands for too long," Grijalva said.

Restoration leases will not be issued if they would conflict with activity already underway on a parcel of land, officials said. They also said private industry could benefit from the program, since companies could buy leases and restore that acreage to offset damage they might do to other government-owned properties.

Those leases were referred to as "conservation leases" in the agency's original proposal last year. That was changed to "restoration leases" and "mitigation leases" in the final rule, but their purpose appears largely the same.

While the bureau previously issued leases for conservation purposes in limited cases, it has never had a dedicated program for it.

Bureau Director Tracy Stone-Manning has said the changes address the rising challenges of climate change and development. She told The Associated Press when the changes were announced last year that making conservation an "equal" to other uses would not interfere with grazing, drilling and other activities.

Former President Donald Trump tried to ramp up fossil fuel development on bureau lands, before President Joe Biden suspended new oil and gas leasing when he entered office. Biden later revived the deals to win West Virginia Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin's support for the 2022 climate law.

Mayor’s proposed budget includes 5% more funding for police  - Bethany Raja, City Desk ABQ

Under the mayor’s proposed budget, funding for the Albuquerque Police Department would increase by $13.4 million — 5.2%.

The proposed budget of $271.5 million includes funding for 1,000 sworn police officers and 725 civilian employees. Much of the proposed increase has to do with personnel, including cost of living adjustments, an increased cost of insurance, and adding a couple more positions.

The target number of sworn officers remains at 1,100 — like it was under previous administrations — but an APD spokesperson said that figure “is a goal from the past and is unrealistic.” However, if the department is able to recruit that many more officers, she said there is a plan to pay for them.

“If the department reaches more than 1,000 officers, there is an administrative plan to request additional resources in order to fund the additional officers,” said Rebecca Atkins, the APD spokesperson.

By mid-fiscal year 2024, APD had 856 sworn officers. That is fewer than in fiscal year 2023 and 2022 when there were 877 and 894 officers respectively, according to data provided in the budget.

Atkins said APD is more focused on a comprehensive approach to public safety than reaching the goal of hiring 1,100 officers.

“That includes a multitude of things including civilianizing many areas of the department as well as advancements in technology, which have been a force multiplier for APD,” she said.

City Councilor Dan Champine told City Desk ABQ that he thinks reaching 1,100 officers isn’t an unrealistic expectation, but it might take a while to reach that goal.

“You have an academy class that’s six months long and you put 50 people in the class, so you do two of those, that’s 100 people that are going to graduate in a year and put out on the streets,” he said. “And during that one year at a time, you lose 60 people because of retirement or moving or life, so now your net gain is 40.”

Champine, a former APD police officer, said if the department could continue graduating 100 cadets each year, it could still take a substantial amount of time to go from 875 to 1,100 officers.


In the last year, Atkins said the department has seen a record number of recruits and some of the largest cadet classes in a decade.

However, she said 80 officers separated from the department during the last fiscal year: 40 officers resigned, 35 retired, and five were terminated.

The city’s targeted number of recruits for next year is 120, although it has not yet broken 100 in previous years. In fiscal year 2023, there were 85 recruits and in 2022 there were 95. By mid-year of fiscal year 2024, APD had 54 recruits.

Atkins said a plan was put into place in 2022 to ramp up recruiting efforts for the Police Service Aide program because they’re a pipeline to future officers. Police Service Aides are tasked with handling minor traffic crashes, writing reports, managing traffic control and assisting with other administrative duties.

“Just in the last two years, nearly two dozen PSAs have become police officers at APD,” Atkins said. “We also currently have nearly 100 PSAs in the department, which is the highest number in the department’s history.”

Once PSAs are qualified to become officers — usually when they turn 21 — Atkins said they can apply to become sworn officers.

The department has also ramped up its recruiting presence on social media platforms, television and in movie theaters, Atkins said.

“There will always be retirements and separations year to year, but, the growing number of cadets in our academy and PSAs who will become future officers continue to add to the department’s growing numbers,” she said. “We will continue our recruiting efforts…which have been successful in reaching qualified candidates who want to join the department.”


WHEN: The next committee meeting to discuss the FY 2025 operating budget is at 5 p.m. on Thursday, May 2.

WHERE: Vincent E. Griego Chambers on the basement level of the Albuquerque Government Center.

HOW: Public commenters must sign up by 4 p.m. on the day of the meeting.

VIRTUAL: The meetings are broadcast on GOV-TV and the City Council’s YouTube channel.

New Mexico chicken farm infected with avian influenza - By Danielle Prokop, Source New Mexico

State livestock and agricultural officials announced Tuesday evening a chicken farm in Roosevelt County was infected with avian influenza, following federal confirmation of samples. Every bird at the farm will be killed.

Samples were first taken from the Eastern New Mexico farm on April 10, a press release for the New Mexico Livestock Board stated.

It’s not clear if the infections in New Mexico chickens are related to the six confirmed cases of avian influenza in New Mexico dairies.

“We simply don’t know,” said Shelton Dodson, the spokesperson for the New Mexico Department of Agriculture. He further said the state is collecting and sending samples to federal officials to help trace the virus’ genome.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture has not published an official reason for the “crossover” of the virus into cattle, but updated their initial findings in a report published April 16.

“Wild migratory birds are believed to be the original source of the virus. However, the investigation to date also includes some cases where the virus spread was associated with cattle movements between herds,” the report stated. “Additionally, we have similar evidence that the virus also spread from dairy cattle premises back into nearby poultry premises through an unknown route.”

It’s unclear if that case of spread from cows to poultry is in New Mexico.

The USDA Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service declined to make anyone available to comment on Tuesday, but a spokesman said the federal agency would provide an interview to Source New Mexico later in the week.

Dodson said he did not know how many birds were at the Roosevelt County facility, deferring comment to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Avian influenza is often deadly to chickens, but all the birds on the premises will be killed, the release stated.

Federal officials have separately confirmed that six dairies in Curry County have cases of avian influenza, called H5N1, since April 1. The most recent confirmed case at a New Mexico Dairy was April 10.

The number of confirmed cases in dairies has grown, with now eight states. As of April 16, those states are Texas, New Mexico, Kansas, Idaho, South Dakota, Michigan, Ohio and North Carolina.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have listed the human risk of infection from H5N1 as low, but that people who work with animals have higher risks.

A Texas dairy worker contracted avian influenza after working with infected cows, on April 1, the second reported case in the U.S. The most prominent symptom was conjunctivitis, or a reddened eyes.

The New Mexico Department of Health told Source NM that two dairy workers have been tested for HPAI, but both results were negative.


The New Mexico Livestock Board urges Roosevelt County residents to watch for the following signs in their poultry

  • Sudden death without any prior symptoms of illness;
  • lack of energy and appetite;
  • a drop in egg production or soft-shelled, misshapen eggs;
  • swelling of the eyelids, comb, wattles, and shanks;
  • purple discoloration of the wattles, comb, and legs;
  • gasping for air (difficulty breathing);
  • nasal discharge, coughing, sneezing;
  • twisting of the head and neck (torticollis);
  • stumbling or falling down;
  • diarrhea

The New Mexico state veterinarian’s office number is (505) 841-6161. People can also email statevet@nmlbonline.com. A full list of official state vets nationwide can be found here.

390 million seedlings: Mora reforestation center sets sights on restoring NM forests - By Patrick Lohmann, Source New Mexico

State and federal forestry officials marked the two-year anniversary of the biggest wildfire in New Mexico history by outlining an ambitious plan to transform a small forest research facility in the burn scar into a vital source of drought-resistant tree seedlings for burned forests across the Southwest.

Swaths of forest across the state are still blackened by recent wildfires and those that burned decades ago. Millions of trees were destroyed by high-intensity wildfires in the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire. Without intervention, researchers said Tuesday, it will take centuries for the forests to return.

State Forester Laura McCarthy said New Mexico needs between 150 and 390 million seedlings to restore forests in burned areas. An additional 26 million seedlings are needed in the burn scar of the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire, researchers said.

So the vision for the New Mexico Forest Reforestation Center, with the help of state and federal money, is to grow five million tree seedlings a year in Mora to be strategically planted in burn scars on public and private land across the Southwest. At the moment, the center produces just 300,000 seedlings annually.

Xochitl Torres Small, the Las Cruces-raised deputy secretary for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, spoke at the small facility for the event Tuesday at the base of fire-scarred mountains in Mora. She said the $11.5 million federal dollars for the center will help it put a dent in the tree deficit accumulated over years of high-intensity fires in a drying Southwest.

She also apologized on behalf of the agency for the wildfire, caused by federal Forest Service crews in two botched prescribed burns that combined almost exactly two years ago. (The USDA oversees the Forest Service.)

“There’s of course symbolism in the fact that we are talking about seedlings in the nursery,” Torres Small told attendees. “When it comes to rebuilding, the hardest part of rebuilding is trust, especially when our relationships have never been perfect when it comes to USDA. And yet, every year we show up to do the work to try to make that relationship better.”

The federal money includes $10 million from the USDA and an additional $1.5 million via Sen. Martin Heinrich’s office. Over the last two legislative sessions, state lawmakers approved $22.5 million for the center, according to the budget legislation.

But it will cost about $100 million to equip the center with new greenhouses and additional technology for testing drought-resistant saplings, researchers said. The researchers come from the University of New Mexico, New Mexico State University, New Mexico Highlands University and the state Energy, Minerals and Natural Resources Department.

To fill the funding gap, the state is finalizing a request of $69 million to the Federal Emergency Management Agency, said Dylan Fuge, EMNRD deputy secretary. FEMA is overseeing a $4 billion fund Congress approved to compensate victims of the federally caused wildfire.

The state’s request for the reforestation center funds will be part of a claim submitted on behalf of all state agencies for losses they endured in the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire. In an interview with Source New Mexico, Fuge could not say when the claim would be sent, except that he hoped to sign off on his department’s portion within a week.

“New Mexico state government and our partner agencies in the federal government are here to help, and the governor’s administration will continue pushing our federal partners and related state agency agencies to provide the relief funding to impacted communities,” Huge told the audience on behalf of Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham, who was scheduled to attend the meeting but canceled Tuesday morning.


If the center receives necessary funding, researchers hope to build 160,000 square feet of greenhouses by 2028. That’s 20 times the 8,000 square feet the center has now. They also hope to invest in research technology to identify the most drought-resistant ponderosa pines and other tree species to give them the best shot of survival in burned, dry forests. Current capacity allows the center to re-plant 1% of the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire burn scar, said research director Owen Burney. “That doesn’t include other fires or future fires,” he said. “So we are not in the capacity we need to be in for the backlog.”

But growing the seedlings isn’t enough. The seedlings also have to survive in an increasingly arid, wildfire-prone landscape, and they’ll have to take root in areas of severe burn, with charred soil and little shade. To improve the seedlings’ odds, researchers subject some seedlings to drought conditions and select for re-planting strains that can handle the heat.

For a study published in December 2022, researchers at the center planted about 2,000 pine, aspen, locust and other seedlings in area of high-severity burns in the scar of the 2011 Las Conchas Fire to measure the effects of things like climate, topography or biology on whether seedlings survived and grew.

The average survival rate after a three-year period was 20%, according to the paper, but researchers said they emerged with a better understanding of the typographical features, stressors and other factors that could help seedlings thrive. That means paying close attention to micro-climates and planting on northern and eastern hillslopes, among other things, researchers said.

Fuge, the EMNRD deputy secretary, said the model scientists developed could increase the survival rate of seedlings from about 25% to between 60% and 90%.

One unique factor that could complicate replanting trees in the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire, researchers acknowledged, is the widespread aerial reseeding of grasses across public and private forests.

The Forest Service dropped tons of seeds from helicopters to stabilize the soil against post-fire flooding, but lingering grass and rye from that effort could compete with baby trees, researchers said. It’s one of many factors they’ll have to consider when it comes time to plant.

Expanding the number of seedlings and ensuring their survival will require additional funds, but researchers said it is a vital effort to sequester carbon, restore watersheds and return fire-scarred landscapes to thriving forests within a human lifespan.