Range fire fuels erosion concerns

By Tony Parra: Freedom Newspapers

FLOYD — A fire that ripped through the Floyd area last week destroyed more than fences and grassland; it destroyed livelihoods, according to landowners.

Floyd area landowners met with Cannon Air Force Base officials and agricultural extension agents Friday at the Floyd Community Center to learn more about the steps they need to take toward revitalizing their lands and the claims process they’ll be going through with the Air Force. Farmers and ranchers also took the opportunity to vent their frustrations.

“It’s turned our lives upside down,” said Jeff Essary, a Floyd landowner. “I can put dollar amounts on the fences it’s destroyed but I can’t put a dollar figure on the erosion it’s caused.”

The Floyd fire destroyed more than 27,000 acres, according to state forestry division representatives. It started on the Melrose Bombing Range on Nov. 30 and, driven by high winds, moved quickly onto private property.

CAFB officials have not disclosed the cause of the fire.

Landowners gave Air Force representatives a feel for what landowners are having to go through and, most of all, of the uncertainty landowners such as Essary are experiencing.

“Everybody at Cannon regrets the fire,” Cannon Air Force Base Lt. Col. Steve Ehlenbeck said. “What we’re trying to do is fairly compensate you for the loss of use and loss of income.”

One of the problems landowners have is the uncertainty of erosion. Floyd McAlister, Roosevelt County ag extension agent, said the fire couldn’t have happened at a worst time because of the lack of precipitation the county regularly receives during the winter months. McAlister said lack of precipitation, coupled with windy conditions, is bad news for farmers and ranchers. These conditions could ruin the top soil, something landowners may not ever regain, he told the crowd.

Some landowners said going four or five months without precipitation is a possibility.

Landowners asked CAFB officials about the time frame claims are settled.

Ehlenbeck said the time frame depends on the size of the claim. Ehlenbeck said a small claim could be settled within two weeks. He said the local CAFB office is able to handle claims of $25,000 or less. Ehlenbeck said large claims must be sent to Washington, D.C., and will take longer to process.

“We’ve got an obligation to pay what’s reasonable,” Ehlenbeck said. “The goal is to fairly compensate (for) the damages caused by the government.”

Ehlenbeck said they will review each claim case-by-case using the taxpayers’ money wisely in compensation.

“Why should you change our lifestyles?,” said Butch Vidlar, a Floyd area landowner. “We should get fair market-value.”

Vidlar said he’s had to move his cattle from damaged grazing land. He said high winds blowing dust causes a suffocating effect on the cattle.

Although CAFB officials said they’re going to be giving out one-time settlements, there’s the potential for advances to landowners before they turn in their claims. Ehlenbeck said the advance requests must meet certain criteria, such as establishing a need to protect their enterprises.

For example, a landowner may need to get an advance on money to pay for top soil protection. Landowners can use either tons of manure, straw or cotton gin trash to try to hold the top soil, but some said that may not be enough.

Joe Whitehead, district conservationist from the Portales office, said there’s no right or wrong answer to soil protection and there are also no guarantees any of these options will keep the soil from being eroded.

The other issue for landowners is the land enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). Whitehead said there were approximately 3,000 acres damaged, which were enrolled in CRP.

Andrew Ortiz, New Mexico State land office conservationist, said the biggest issue for these landowners is compliance of CRP. Landowners have multiple-year agreements with the government through the CRP in which they are paid to keep their lands out of farming and grazing. Ortiz said some of the land owners’ contracts are up in 2007 and they may not be able to re-enroll their land in CRP if the soil is dry and sandy.

• Cannon Air Force Base officials are asking that individuals who sustained damages as a result of the Nov. 30 fire call the base’s claims office at 784-2212.