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More than 140 square miles of overgrown, fire-prone areas around New Mexico have been thinned over the last several years, but state forestry officials say they need more funding to continue the work

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ALBUQUERQUE, New Mexico — New Mexico forestry officials have identified watersheds around the state that are in desperate need of restoration.

They've already treated more than 140 square miles of these overgrown, fire-prone areas over the last several years and now they're asking the state Legislature for another $4 million in capital outlay funds to expand the work.

Even though New Mexico has had its share of drought and record wildfires over the last decade, it could be a tough sell since New Mexico will have little new money to spend on education and other government programs as revenues from the oil and gas industry keep shrinking.

Acting State Forester Eddie Tudor said he's still going to try, given that restoration of the areas that communities depend on for water — whether from snowmelt or storm water runoff — is a never-ending task.

"It's very important that we continue to get the funding that we ask for. It gives us the ability to expand upon the projects we've already done and increase to a landscape scale to where we're actually treating critical watersheds across the state."

He argued that the thinning projects also help create jobs and bolster small-scale timber operations.

Using $6.2 million set aside by Gov. Susana Martinez in 2014 along with capital outlay funds earmarked in 2015 and federal and state grant money, State Forestry has been able to team up with local partners to treat some 4,200 acres over the last two years.

The agency told members of a House committee on Monday that it's on track to finish the remainder of the projects that were first identified as part of the watershed initiative in 2014.

That work stretches from Santa Fe and Sandoval counties south to the Mescalero Apache tribe's watershed and west to the Six Shooter project in Catron County, which focused on re-establishing meadows and areas damaged by a 2012 fire that raced across more than 450 square miles of forest to become the largest fire in the state's recorded history.

Tudor said state and federal land managers will meet this spring to identify other projects that have the potential to benefit entire landscapes.

U.S. Forest Service officials who testified before the House panel said federal budget constraints have kept them from ramping up work to reduce fuel hazards on national forest lands.

Southwest Regional Forester Cal Joyner said whether human-caused or not, the drying and warming trend that has made forests more susceptible to insects and disease is a reality for land managers.

"We could be doing a lot more than we're doing if we had the resources," he said.

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