By Sarah DeMay
Our Women Owning Woodlands group encompasses the mostly rural and mountainous areas of northern New Mexico. During the fall of 2021, we organized a project to give women the opportunity to work on chainsaw and wood-processing skills while also helping out local people in need of firewood for the winter.
The area surrounding the towns of Chama and Tierra Amarilla, New Mexico, is very rural. People in this area ranch, hunt, and still rely on firewood for heat in the winter, and often for cooking, too. Older and/or disabled people who can no longer manage the demanding physical work required to get wood from forest to woodpile generally rely on younger family members or neighbors to get their winter supply in. And, of course, there are always people that live alone, don’t have family nearby, and never have enough. This is where our local WOW group wanted to find a niche.
So, where do we get the wood? The mountains of northern New Mexico are very prone to catastrophic wildfire and tree mortality due to decades of drought and fire suppression. Many land owners and managers are implementing very proactive forest management strategies that include a lot of thinning, mostly of standing dead wood, which is ideal for firewood. A local landowner and member of our WOW group offered to let us take wood from an ongoing thinning project on her land.
We spent one full day cutting and hauling logs and then split and delivered loads as we had time over the next several weeks. We were lucky to have plenty of people (some good men too!), sawyers, heavy equipment, log splitters, and trucks, but we still hardly made a dent in the amount of excess wood needing removal from that property.
Using our own equipment, backs, and time, and partnering with both the local senior center and another local group, the Chama Peak Land Alliance, we delivered firewood to over a dozen people in need.
The local community really rallied around this project, which was a great unanticipated benefit, and our WOW group plans to continue getting firewood to those in need this year. Last fall, project planning was pretty spontaneous and on-the-fly, and we needed quite a bit of help from people and groups outside of WOW to get it done. And we squeezed in just before winter really set in. This year, however, we have the lessons we learned and more time to plan.
Our 2022 focus will be “women helping women.” We plan to identify a manageable number of women in need from within our own network of friends and neighbors, focusing on quality more than quantity. We will start earlier and strategize based on how much wood we can realistically provide with just WOW community volunteers, time, and equipment. We will also continue to utilize wood from our own lands, promote wood gathering for the dual benefit of land stewardship and firewood access, and provide opportunities for women to gain valuable skills such as chainsaw use.