Philmont’s wildfire mitigation project aims to reduce risk

Five years ago, the devastating Ute Park Fire scorched more than 26,000 acres at Philmont Scout Ranch. The blaze, along with the extremely dry conditions and 1-foot fire risks, forced the cancellation of backcountry treks in 2018.

Immediately, the Philmont staff began organizing short- and long-term recovery plans. Scouts returned to trek at the beloved camp the following year. Staff members came to help clean up and rebuild campsites. And forests have since been thinned to reduce the fuel that can easily carry wildfires.

The next phase — a $1.3 million collaboration of public, private and state agencies — builds upon the thinning process as crews treat about 10 acres a day with the goal of addressing 62,000 acres to reduce the overall wildfire risk. This process is underway with about 200 acres completed.

Thinning the brush

Creating space between trees helps prevent fires from climbing into the trees’ canopies and spreading from tree to tree. Taking out the undergrowth slows a fire’s spread on the ground.

Philmont is working with the State of New Mexico Forestry Division and Miller Timber Services to strategically cut back overgrown forests. The latest project, which should conclude later this month, will treat 600 acres and merge with a 1,000-acre shaded fuel break. A shaded fuel break is an area where the trees’ lower branches have been removed and the undergrowth is managed, again, to slow a wildfire’s progression and protect watersheds.

This project adds to what has already been done since 2018. Staff and volunteers have devoted more than 300,000 collective hours of labor, the majority of which has been toward timber stand improvements.

Helping everyone

These mitigation efforts benefit not only the 20,000 Scouts and visitors who come to Philmont this year. They benefit not only the thousands of Scouts and visitors who will come to Philmont in the future. These efforts also benefit the surrounding communities in northern New Mexico in that the watersheds are being protected and restored.

Land stewardship and conservation is key to Philmont’s mitigation efforts so the ranch and surrounding communities can be safeguarded from future disasters. The projects promote more biodiversity by cutting back on thick excess vegetation, thus promoting the growth of native plants and enhancing the environment for wildlife. Reducing competition for resources allows more species to thrive, creating a healthier forest, which can better withstand pest infestation and diseases.

Reducing trees per acre also allows more sunlight to reach the ground, helping grasses and forbs to grow, thus minimizing erosion and allowing rainfall to get back into the water table easily. Most of the cut wood will be taken to Blanca Forestry Products in Colorado as well as mills in New Mexico. Revenue from the project will be reinvested into treating more acres.

Finally, as this project continues, Scouts and visitors will get to see it in action. Educating everyone will help foster a sense of environmental awareness and responsibility that hopefully will translate into action when they head back home.

About Michael Freeman 446 Articles
Michael Freeman, an Eagle Scout, is an associate editor of Scout Life and Scouting magazines.