In New Mexico, trying to capitalize on natural beauty as climate change disrupts it

The Hermit’s Peak and Calf Canyon fires began in April, after the US Forest Service conducted what was believed to be a controlled burn to thin out the dense undergrowth. High winds whipped the two blazes into a megacomplex that eventually burned 342,000 acres across three counties and wasn’t fully brought under control until mid-August.

Then came the floods. With no trees to hold back the mountains, the monsoon season sent rivers of sediment flowing down ravines, spilling onto roads and houses below. The irrigation canals have been filled with earth and stones, but there is no point in dredging them until the floods stop.

Michael Maes’ home in Mora, an Eden Valley town a few canyons away from Mr. Ulibarri’s, is right in the way of this water. At one point it rose up to his waist, and even after clearing all the mud, he had to repeatedly scramble to channel further flooding around the structure instead of through it. During this time, the water pressure remained low, so he had to carry buckets just to flush the toilet.

“We get hit again and again,” Mr. Maes said. All that work took him away from his day job, cutting his hair for about 40 minutes in the valley, and drained his savings. Whenever the sky darkens, he stays in touch with friends over a text string, dreading the ensuing shipwreck. “There’s a cloud rolling in all of a sudden,” he said, and the question is, “Who’s gonna get it today?”

Because the US Forest Service took responsibility for the fire, it is footing the bill for reconstruction and compensating those who suffered financial losses with a $2.5 billion aid package. Eventually, if people are able to prove their claims – a complicated business in a place where land ownership is often not fully documented – they should be fixed. Meanwhile, the White House is asking for an additional $2.9 billion, part of a $37 billion package for victims of natural disasters this year across the country.

In New Mexico, physical risk from climate change comes in two forms. One is the creeping loss of prosperity caused by a prolonged drought which, in the Mora region, had already completely dried up the system of ditches which had irrigated crops and watered livestock for generations. Catastrophic fires exemplify the other type: a destructive event that vaporizes assets all at once.

Mora County, which has a population of 4,200, has seen both. Long supported by small-scale agriculture and logging, local non-profit organizations were working to develop a tourist economy. They were building a social media presence, and one group even spoke to movie studios drawn to the scenic vistas and ranches that look straight out of the Old West.


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