People who rely on wood stoves to heat their homes in the winter are scrambling to find other options after a U.S. District Court halted tree cutting on large swaths of national forests in the Southwest over concern about a threatened owl.
"We have some elderly people that we have been serving for decades and they totally rely on this wood and on us, and it's causing me to panic wondering if I'm going to be able to keep these senior citizens warm, these widows," said Della Barrone, an owner of Olguin's Sawmill in Taos, New Mexico.
The U.S. Forest Service said Thursday it has suspended timber sales, thinning projects, prescribed burns and the sale of firewood permits as a result of a recent court order in a 2013 case in which environmentalists accused the agency of failing to track the population of Mexican spotted owls.
U.S. District Judge Raner Collins said the Forest Service and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have had more than 20 years to get a better handle on owl populations in all five national forests in New Mexico and Tonto National Forest outside metropolitan Phoenix.
The six forests combined have more than 8,900 active permits for fuelwood gathering that include personal and commercial use. More than half of those permits are in Carson and Santa Fe national forests in northern New Mexico. The Tonto forest has more than 1,000.
About two dozen projects including prescribed burns, thinning and other forest restoration work also are on hold, said Forest Service spokesman Shayne Martin.
Wood is the primary heating source for many residents in rural areas who cannot afford propane and don't have access to natural gas lines. Families make a weekend of driving into the forest and cutting dead trees, loading the logs in pickup trucks and stacking them in their yards for use throughout the winter. Already, nighttime temperatures have dipped below freezing.
Others rely on wood gathering for cooking, making furniture, building homes or crafting ornate beams known as latillas and vigas that are popular in the Southwest.
The judge ruled that timber management activities will be sidelined until the Fish and Wildlife Service and forest managers formally consult about what projects affect the owls and their habitat.
First listed as threatened in 1993, the owl is found in parts of Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, Utah, west Texas and Mexico.
WildEarth Guardians filed a motion Thursday to modify the order to exclude personal firewood cutting and gathering. The environmental group says it doesn't believe those activities will irreparably harm the owls.
"The situation we're in here is really a situation of the Forest Service's own making," said Steven Sugarman who represents WildEarth Guardians in the case. "Sure, Guardians filed a lawsuit to enforce the law, but that's because the Forest Service ignored the law for almost 25 years."
It's unclear when the judge will rule on the motion.
The Forest Service said it would agree on allowing personal firewood cutting.
"We want folks to be able to use fuelwood if we're allowed to, but we don't have the flexibility based on the court order to interpret it as we see fit," Martin said.
In the meantime, Barrone and others say they'll seek other options to cut firewood on U.S. Bureau of Land Management land, private land or within forests where it's not banned.
Matt Allen runs Mt. Taylor Manufacturing in northwestern New Mexico. His workers can pick up about 200 truckloads of logs they've already cut in the Zuni Mountains to keep the business afloat for about two months, he said.
If the tree-cutting ban doesn't end soon, he said he will have to start laying off a largely Navajo workforce as the holidays approach.
"These sweeping injunctions damage a lot of people who are victims in this, and a softer approach would have been a lot smarter," he said. "It's perceived by the public, once again, as governmental overreach."
Moises Morales, a 71-year-old rancher and farmer in Canjilon, New Mexico, hasn't started gathering the several cords of wood he needs to last through the winter. He said a court order won't stop him.
"If we get a bad winter, God knows what could happen," he said.