Alan Barton, previously the manager of the collaboration program at the New Mexico Forest and Watershed Restoration Institute, stepped into the role of director in October.
The new leadership comes at a time when the Institute’s budget has grown substantially due to increased Forest Service funding, which previous Institute director, Kent Reid, attributed to good past performance by the Institute staff and to the advocacy of former New Mexico senator, Tom Udall. With an increase in budget, Reid said the institute will be able to expand its watershed monitoring, mapping, and treatment programs in ways that were previously not possible under his leadership due to a restricted budget.
In addition to a degree in forestry, Barton holds doctorate degrees in sociology and law, all of which he said give him the skills to build the administrative structure needed for a larger budget and larger scope of work moving forward.
According to Barton, who has worked for the organization for six years, the Institute and two others located in Colorado and Arizona were created in 2004 as the result of congressional legislation. And while the Institute is housed within New Mexico Highlands University, its funding comes from the federal and state governments.
The New Mexico Forest and Watershed Institute works primarily to restore ecological health to forests and prevent catastrophic wildfires. The organization supports this work through collaboration with other agencies, organizations, and stakeholders, through mapping and data collection, through monitoring, and by providing support and resources for on-the-ground restoration work.
“Congress charged us with promoting adaptive management practices in New Mexico,” said Barton. “Adaptive management means evidence-based planning and management, so that we’re doing the data collection through monitoring, and then we use this data to contribute to management plans and to adjust what we’re doing. Those are really our strengths.”
With the increasing prevalence of catastrophic forest fires across the American West, Barton said the Institute’s work is relevant to everyone who lives in New Mexico and across the West. According to Barton, fire suppression strategies began in New Mexico in the 1880s, which has led to unhealthy forest ecosystems.
“We’re seeing these huge fires, and these fires are driven by a lot of trees and a lot of fuel in the forest. We really need to reduce those fuels,” said Barton. “It’s not that we want to get rid of fires— fire is part of the ecology of Western forests. But we don’t want the fires to grow to this huge size. The way to do that is to reduce the fuels so the fires burn how they’re supposed to, which is mostly on the ground, which regenerates the forest instead of killing it.”
In addition to the programs already in place at the Institute, Barton hopes to hire an economist who can help identify economic and business uses for small diameter trees. He said that because fires have been suppressed for so long, forests are overgrown and crowded, which makes it difficult for many trees to grow. Small diameter trees cannot be used for lumber which makes it unattractive for commercial logging.
“We want to get some of the wood out of the forest and right now, it’s very expensive to do that. We call that the utilization issue, finding revenue-generating uses for this wood,” said Barton. “If you can solve the utilization issue, then a lot of the other issues we deal with go away because you’re getting that wood out of the forest.”
According to Barton, finding a way to do more prescribed burns will be vital to the Institute’s ongoing work in forest restoration, and in working to alleviate the effects of climate change.
“Climate change is the central environmental issue of the world, and the work we’re doing is good for mitigating greenhouse gases,” said Barton. “It might sound funny because we’re taking trees off the landscape, and trees are good carbon sinks. But in the ponderosa pine ecosystem, trees spread out more and there’s a lot more vegetation on the ground, so you’re going to see more carbon sequestration in larger trees and understory species than in small diameter trees. Restoring forests is an important part of the whole equation of trying to mitigate the effects of climate change.”
Barton said he’s been glad to see more people getting out into the forests as the result of the COVID-19 pandemic, because building a personal connection to the forest can be a first step for individuals who might want to get involved in policy making or restoration work down the road. Prescribed burns are a particularly tricky topic for the public, according to Barton, so helping people understand that fires are a part of a healthy forest ecosystem is essential.
“If you get those connections, then people start to think about that,” said Barton. “Then it’s really a matter of educating people about the kinds of policy solutions that are necessary, and the kinds of ecological solutions that are necessary so people will be more receptive.”
Barton said the Institute’s commitment to collaboration with stakeholders is vital to the organization’s work and he said the Geographic Information System, or GIS, program has positioned them to take a leadership role in mapping and data collection at a large scale.
According to former director Reid, the Institute’s vegetation treatment database has garnered national attention.
“The Institute is in the bipartisan infrastructure bill because a staffer in Washington remembered the vegetation treatment database and he wrote that into the bill,” said Reid. “If it’s passed, that $20 million would be allocated to the Institutes to produce a nationwide vegetation treatment database and do other related work.”
Reid said his retirement is coming at an excellent time for the Institute.
“I left at a good time financially for the Institute; we are in better shape in terms of grants than we have been in terms of core money from the Forest Service than we have ever been,” said Reid. “Alan was the best candidate for director, and I have every confidence in him. Alan is in a really good position to be able to carry us forward, given his skills, and given the resources that we have now.”
Reid said he looks forward to seeing what Barton will accomplish at the Institute in the coming years and he said the strength of the forestry department at Highlands University will be an asset for the Institute as well.
“The forestry department has made great leaps since I’ve been here and having a good partnership between the Institute and the forestry department and being able to depend on each other and leverage each other—I think that’s going to be a really positive thing going forward,” said Reid. “I think we really are on the verge of greatness with the critical mass that is happening right now.”