In New Mexico, Trying to Capitalize on Natural Beauty as Climate Change Disrupts It

The Hermit’s Peak and Calf Canyon fires started in April, after the U.S. Forest Service conducted what was supposed to have been a controlled burn to thin the dense undergrowth. High winds whipped both fires into a megacomplex that ultimately torched 342,000 acres across three counties, and wasn’t fully controlled until mid-August.

Then came the flooding. With no trees to hold back the mountains, monsoon season sent rivers of sediment coursing through the gulleys, spilling over roads and onto the homes below. Irrigation channels have been filled with dirt and rocks, but there’s no point in dredging them until the deluges stop.

Michael Maes’s home in Mora, an edenic valley town a few canyons away from Mr. Ulibarri’s place, stands right in the path of this water. At one point, it rose to his waist, and even after clearing out all the mud, he had to scramble repeatedly to channel fresh flooding around the structure instead of through it. Meanwhile, water pressure has remained low, so he’s had to carry buckets around just to flush toilets.

“We just get hit over and over,” said Mr. Maes. All of that work kept him from his day job, cutting hair about 40 minutes down the valley, and drained his savings. Every time the sky darkens, he keeps in touch with friends on a text chain, dreading the wreckage that follows. “There’s a cloud that rolls over, all of a sudden” he said, and the question is: “Who’s going to get it today?”

Because the U.S. Forest Service took responsibility for the fire, it is footing the bill for reconstruction and compensating those who suffered financial losses with an aid package worth $2.5 billion. Eventually, if people are able to prove their claims — a complicated endeavor in a place where property ownership often isn’t fully documented — they should be made whole. Meanwhile, the White House is asking for $2.9 billion more, as part of a $37 billion package for victims of the year’s natural disasters across the country.

In New Mexico, the physical risk from climate change comes in two forms. One is the creeping loss of prosperity brought on by prolonged drought, which in the Mora area had already completely dried up the system of ditches that had irrigated crops and watered cattle for generations. Catastrophic fire exemplifies the other kind: A destructive event that vaporizes assets all at once.

Mora County, population 4,200, has seen both. Long sustained by small-scale agriculture and logging, local nonprofits had been working to develop a tourism economy. They were building up a social media presence, and one group even talked to film studios drawn by the sweeping views and ranches that seem right out of the old West.


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