Supreme Court declines to hear NM tree clearing dispute

LINCOLN NATIONAL FOREST, N.M. (KRQE) – The U.S. Supreme Court is letting a ruling stand that could add fuel to wildfires in New Mexico. The high court made it clear that counties in the state cannot go onto federal land and thin forests without federal permission.

Scars from recent wildfires are still present around Ruidoso.

“There were so many homes that were threatened. Animals, homes, we lost seven water sheds during the Little Bear Fire,” said Mary Ann Russ, with the Little Bear Forest Reform Coalition.

The Little Bear Fire, the most destructive in New Mexico history, started on federal land in the Lincoln National Forest before burning more than 200 homes. To prevent another catastrophe, people are doing their part and removing trees and clearing undergrowth, but they’re running into problems.

“We are all concerned that the Forest Service is not thinning the forest,” Russ said.

Since the forest is on federal land, citizens and local governments need permission to go in and do some thinning.

“There’s not enough money, we don’t have enough personnel. I think they would like to do that but they answer to someone else,” she added.

The issue goes back to 2001. In the wake of the Cerro Grande fire near Los Alamos, which started with a controlled burn on federal land, frustrated state lawmakers passed a law allowing counties to embark on forest thinning projects on federal land without federal permission.

However, the feds sued six years ago when Otero County tried to do just that in the aftermath of the Mayhill Fire — a lightning-sparked fire that took off in the Lincoln National Forest.

The U.S. Court of Appeals agreed, saying counties must have federal permission, and Monday the U.S. Supreme Court let the ruling stand.

“We have a bunch of companies that are thinning the trees and doing what they need to do, but if our government isn’t going to put in the time, then what are we supposed to do? We can only do so much as people,” said Kimberly Bates, Ruidoso resident.

Local municipalities like Ruidoso say at this point all they can do is protect their own land and make sure residents do the same so that if a big fire burns through, they have defensible space. Still, sometimes in a catastrophic fire, that isn’t enough.

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