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Even during the hottest summer days, residents of northern New Mexico already have winter and firewood on their minds. The first frosts will hit in September, and for folks like Gilbert Sanistevan, an 87-year-old part-time mechanic who lives alone in Questa, it’s always a race to gather wood before the cold weather arrives.
“We have long winters. Cold winters,” says Sanistevan, who typically burns about six cords of wood each year. “Sometimes I run out, and it can be rough if people aren’t able to deliver more in the winter.”
His daughter brought him about four cords earlier in the summer, but he was still short until members of the Rocky Mountain Youth Corps (RMYC) paid him a surprise visit last month and delivered about a cord of piñon pine. “I was glad when those boys and girls came in,” Sanistevan says. “They got here at the right time.”
Sanistevan is one of several Taos area seniors who received the byproduct of local thinning projects, delivered by RMYC this July. Ongoing forest restoration projects in the Taos area mitigate the risk of wildfire and protect water resources, but they also produce a glut of small-diameter wood, which is often burned or piled on site rather than redistributed in the community.
The organizer of one such thinning project, J.R. Logan, recognized that elderly residents could use the wood and that RMYC had a team capable of delivering it. So he connected Darien Fernandez, conservation program director for RMYC, with the LOR Foundation, and the Taos County Ancianos Senior Program. Aided by a small grant from LOR, they were able to identify elders like Sanistevan who aren’t able to buy wood at retail prices or aren’t physically able to gather it on their own.
“I don’t have propane or a furnace or nothing,” says Pancho Vigil, a 74-year-old disabled veteran who uses firewood as the sole means of heating and cooking at his home in Cerro. “I rely only on the wood. I burn it all.”
Vigil, who typically burns nine cords each winter, received almost a cord of wood from RMYC and is expecting a friend of his to deliver several more truckloads before cold weather sets in.
“This emerged as a collaborative effort among locals who are thinking holistically about forest restoration,” says Sonya Struck, LOR’s Taos community officer. “It’s inspiring to see the community come together like this, and I’m thrilled LOR is able to lend a helping hand.”
The project also underscores a relationship between forest health and the needs of the community’s most vulnerable residents. If thinning projects are producing excess wood, there may be future opportunities to connect those in need with fuel wood. “We’re increasing the pace and scale of restoration to protect watersheds and communities,” Logan says. “But there are numerous ancillary benefits to that work beyond just removing hazardous fuels from the forest.”
For seniors like Sanistevan and Vigil, those benefits are clear: The warmth of next spring is a long way off, but there’s already comfort in knowing they’ll have a stockpile to see them through.
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Taos County organizations are assessing forest health and the demand for firewood in the area by gathering feedback from community members. If you want to get involved, visit the Taos County Wildfire Plaza website.Learn More
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Born and raised in Taos, Sonya approaches her work with a sharp eye for the values and cultural traditions that make her home unique. She understands that a resilient rural community must provide opportunity for all to prosper, and in… Meet Sonya