Albuquerque/Santa Fe – New Mexicans are keenly aware of summer dangers. Each day the temperature rises above 95 degrees, so too does the risk of increased fire to our dense forests. The warmer, drier weather, combined with the probability of human error, has set up a tinder box scenario, where our woods are ready to burn out of control with a single spark or lightning strike, devastating communities, environments, and the water supply.

“Every day we avoid the start of a new fire is dodging a bullet,” says Laura McCarthy, New Mexico’s Nature Conservancy associate director. “Eventually the odds will run out. That is why we need to focus on the work we can do together to get our forests back in shape through landscape-scale restoration treatments.”

Enter the super funders. In the last few months, five organizations have donated a total of $335,000 to The Nature Conservancy-led Rio Grande Water Fund. The Water Fund is a visionary public-private partnership to proactively increase the pace and scale of forest restoration in the Rio Grande Watershed over the next 20 years. Through the fund, 600,000 acres of at-risk forests that safeguard water for half of the state’s population are protected through strategic thinning, controlled burning and invasive species removal. 

Recently, The Taos Valley Ski Foundation donated a $125,000 grant to the Water Fund, bringing its total support to $375,000 since the fund’s launch four years ago.

“The Rio Grande Water Fund is an ambitious and essential effort to improve the condition of dangerously overgrown forests in northern New Mexico,” says Louis Bacon, conservation philanthropist and founder of The Taos Ski Valley Foundation. “In the short-term, this critical project will help prevent catastrophic wildfires that destroy homes, businesses and lives. And in the long term, this collaboration will improve forest health, bolster local economies and help protect the state’s water supply.”

Support for the Rio Grande Water Fund is coming from a variety of sources, from private and community foundations to corporate and county donations. The US Endowment for Forestry and Communities, a national public/private partner, recently invested $150,000 for the Water Fund to develop a state-of-the-art monitoring system and to test drones and other new aerial techniques to document forest health and target prority areas for treatment.

“The innovative technology is better, faster, cheaper and automated. Plus, the data will be accessible to all stakeholders, enabling an increase in the scale of work,” says Carlton Owen, the US Endowment’s President and CEO. “The Rio Grande Water Fund’s innovations will be useful to other projects thoughout the country – because forests and water are fundamental everywhere.”

Additional funders include General Mills Foundation, Bernalillo County, and Albuquerque Community Foundation – attracted to the Rio Grande Water Fund because of the positive results they are seeing on the ground, including job creation. A few years ago, with the annual average of forest thinning at only 3,000 acres, it was impossible to make a dent in the problem. Now, with strong partners, the Rio Grande Water Fund has restored 70,000 acres in three years, reversing the trend and ensuring protection for this vital water supply.

“The Water Fund is all about collaboration,” adds McCarthy. “We – The Nature Conservancy, funders, businesses, agencies, industry, and individuals – can accomplish great things when we do it together.”

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