Drought-caused threat of fires has caused restrictions on and whole closures of most forests in the Southwest.
JEMEZ SPRINGS, N.M.
In the Los Ojos restaurant, two patrons swallow the last of their lunch while the bartender chews the fat with a local. Otherwise, the place is unnaturally empty for this time of year: This is supposed to be the busy season for this tiny town nestled in the rugged Santa Fe National Forest.
For the first time since 1975, the Santa Fe National Forest all 1.8 million acres is closed to hikers, campers, and outdoor enthusiasts. Warning signs, police tape, and gates barricade access roads.
It's a similar story up and down the Rocky Mountain spine, the Southwest, and Great Basin where the decade-long drought has created tinderbox conditions. All-time records for dryness are being set in the nation's forests, creating what officials say could be the worst fire season in decades.
As a result, entire forests are being shut down to the public by federal and state officials who reason that preventing people from even stepping foot on government land may reduce wildfires, the majority of which are caused by humans.
"Just about every forest in the Southwest is closed or under some type of restrictions," says Walt Hisenberg at the Southwest Coordination Center in Albuquerque. "It's a drastic thing to close forests. In a normal year, we wouldn't have to do this. But this isn't a normal year."
New Mexico closed the Santa Fe forest earlier this month, and Arizona closed two forests just before Memorial Day weekend. (Indeed, yesterday, a wildfire that forced the evacuation of about 100 Arizona residents in the Coronado National Forest was threatening 700 homes. And a wildfire had scorched more than 11,000 acres in the rugged Pecos Wilderness of the Santa Fe National Forest.)
While they understand that a burning forest will bring even fewer visitors, many businesses that rely entirely on the summer season are distressed.