Cochiti Canyon, outside Los Alamos, New Mexico, is part of an area that burned at the rate of half an acre per second during a 2011 wildfire. (Photo: Paul Tullis)

TakePart Features

The Innovative, Unlikely Idea That Could Save America’s Forests

Warming and drought are contributing to bigger and more frequent wildfires. A new approach—helping trees get the rain and snowfall they need—could be a model to help forests worldwide.
Oct 17, 2014· 18 MIN READ
Nancy Averett is a freelance journalist who enjoys writing about science, social issues, and athletes. Her work has appeared in Audubon, Pacific Standard, and Inc.

In late August 2011, the Rio Grande ran black through New Mexico. Earlier in the month, the largest wildfire in the state’s history had burned in the mountains northwest of Santa Fe, and without vegetation to hold the soil in place, seasonal monsoon rains sent mud, dead trees, and other material down the mountain in a 70-foot-deep mass of debris that ended up in the river. The water utilities in Albuquerque and Santa Fe announced they were closing their intake valves from the river because managers feared the gunk would damage water treatment facilities, which might hamper their ability to provide clean water for months.

Dale Dekker, an architect and member of the Greater Albuquerque Chamber of Commerce, took a pragmatic view of the situation. “Having a black river flowing through town was definitely bad for business,” he said. Damages amounted to $45 million.

Laura McCarthy remembers it too. As director of agency and government relations for the New Mexico Nature Conservancy, she and others had been working for years to prevent this kind of occurrence—one that local TV news stations were now broadcasting footage of over and over, as if on auto-repeat. The flood was the foreseeable outcome—foreseeable to McCarthy and her fellow travelers, at least—of increasingly large wildfires of increasing severity lighting up the increasingly hot and dry mixed-conifer forests of northern New Mexico. The Las Conchas Fire that July and August surpassed the Cerro Grande Fire of 2000 as the largest in the state’s history. The Dome Fire of 1996 had flames hundreds of feet long. McCarthy and similar-minded scientists and conservationists in the area had been virtually shouting from the mountaintops that something had to be done to help the forests and that the consequence of inaction would be felt outside them. It was hard to argue, now, that they hadn’t failed.

But all those fires happened far away from the power brokers in Albuquerque, the state capital, and Santa Fe, home to much of the state’s monied elite. Here was evidence of the issues McCarthy and others had for years been desperately trying to convince their community—legislators, bureaucrats, business owners, community groups, and anyone else they could corner—needed attention. Maybe now the public would listen. McCarthy decided it was time to think big.

Frequent, low-intensity wildfires were once a natural part of the ecosystem in New Mexico and across the Mountain West, and plant species that live there evolved in response to them. Ponderosa pines, for example, develop thick bark as they age, armoring themselves against oxidation, and shed their lower branches so small flames cleaning up thickets and fallen branches can’t reach into their crowns. Lodgepole pines only release their seeds when heated to around 150 degrees Fahrenheit. But in the early 1900s, the U.S. Forest Service adopted a policy of suppressing all wildfires as quickly as possible, allowing the undergrowth to flourish and leading to fires like we have today—burning hotter, lasting longer, and spreading farther.

Scientists and even the Forest Service now recognize that this was a mistake, and the agency has begun work to thin the forests, removing smaller trees, cutting some branches with mechanical equipment, and even setting controlled burns. But “prescribed fire” has been less of an option in recent years, as the drought conditions in the West since 2000 continue while the fuel builds up. Mechanical thinning is expensive, and the Forest Service budget, ironically, is already strained from the billion-dollar expense of fighting more and bigger wildfires. Only about 2,000­ to 3,000 acres get treated each year in the Jemez Mountains, where Las Conchas, Cerro Grande, and Dome all burned, and it’s a federally recognized high-priority area.

McCarthy knew for a long time that more forest treatments were needed in the region. Bleak as it was, the Rio Grande flood might be just the opportunity she needed to get others in Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and nearby communities to give more. And she knew just how she should go about it.

In 2006, McCarthy’s boss, Terry Sullivan, had traveled to Quito, Ecuador, where he learned about a financial vehicle called a “water fund.” Quito’s downstream water users, notably Coca-Cola and the beer company Cervecería Nacional, paid for conservation and restoration of the upstream watershed. The idea was that these companies were profiting, and citizens were benefiting, from clean water, which was a product of a healthy ecosystem in the land where the water originated. If they wanted to continue that relationship, the companies and other donors to the fund had recognized, they should pay to protect the ecosystem.

When Sullivan came back from South America and told McCarthy about Quito’s project, she knew she had to try it. At 45, McCarthy was at a turning point in her career. She’d earned a master's in forestry from Yale and spent 15 years at the Forest Service. The Nature Conservancy had hired her away just a year earlier, in 2005, to find ways it could use the marketplace to pay for natural resource conservation. McCarthy, with her wavy shoulder-length graying hair and outdoorsy, earthy clothes, had read enough academic papers about “payment for ecosystem services.” Her eyes were glazing over. “I didn’t want to generate another paper,” she said. “I wanted to do something real.” Quito showed her what could be done.

Her resolve led to the 2009 launch of the Santa Fe Water Fund, with a plan to charge city residents a monthly fee—about 65 cents per household, on average—to raise $4.3 million over 20 years for thinning 17,000 acres in the Santa Fe National Forest. That will reduce the likelihood of severe fires, which will keep healthy trees in the ground, which will foster groundwater recharge and maintain soil in its place and out of the river.

For the Rio Grande, however, McCarthy needed more drastic action.

Although Denver also has a water fund, whereby the city’s water utility will pay $33 million over five years to thin 38,000 acres of forest, and Flagstaff created one for 15,000 acres, using a $10 million bond approved by residents, the Rio Grande Water Fund, as McCarthy would name it, would need to exist on a scale that had not been tried in the U.S. Her success in starting the Santa Fe fund gave McCarthy confidence that she could pull off something far more ambitious, but Santa Fe is wealthy and liberal compared with the rest of New Mexico. The new project seeks to thin 600,000 acres of forest, beginning 30 miles south of Albuquerque and extending all the way north to the Colorado border, at a cost of $21 million per year for the next 20 years. Such vast ambition would require commensurately broader support.

McCarthy hopes it will not just safeguard the forests from costly and catastrophic wildfires—Las Conchas’ price tag was $246 million—but from climate change, which, even as it makes the forests more susceptible to fire, is also making New Mexico’s cyclical droughts hotter, drier, and less hospitable to the tree species that comprise the forests. Eleven studies modeling future conditions in the region’s forests have shown that if today’s carbon emissions continue to increase at the rate they have over the past decade, many pine trees in the Southwest will likely be gone by 2050, even without wildfire.

That was what McCarthy would need to tell people. “The Forest Service does not have the budget to achieve the restoration that is needed,” she said. “If we wait for them to act, we risk our water and our way of life.”

New growth in a burned area of New Mexico's Jemez Mountains shows how fire changes forest composition. (Photo: Paul Tullis)

McCarthy climbed in and out of her Prius more times than she could count last year. From city to town, through forest and desert, over two-lane back roads and broad interstates, she traversed hundreds of miles across the northern half of New Mexico as she tried to convince people ranging from staff at the Center for Biological Diversity to members of the New Mexico Cattle Growers Association of what scientists like Craig Allen, an ecologist with the U.S. Geological Survey who has worked for decades in the Jemez, had been telling her. “We have just a short window of opportunity to make our forests more resilient,” Allen says. “Time is of the essence.”

McCarthy was asking people who don’t agree on much to give millions of dollars for something that might not show results for years and that could end up helping groups whose interests they oppose more than it would help them. “No single water user wants the sole responsibility for paying for the solution,” McCarthy says. Nevertheless, “they’ve all said they’ll come to the table if there are others at the table.” She needed enough of them to sign on to pay tens of millions for the restoration treatments that the national forests around Albuquerque and Santa Fe badly needed and now, to help prevent the kind of catastrophic wildfires that have been ravaging the state over the past 20 years. “This is a big problem,” McCarthy said, standing at a podium set up at the Hilton Garden Inn in Las Cruces or the Sagebrush Inn in Taos or the Albuquerque Marriott, “and the federal government is not going to be able to solve it for us.” Pointing to a photo of an area of the Jemez devastated by wildfire, she said, “This is indication that things aren’t working. We have a proposal to dramatically change that.” Often, she faced blank stares.

Laura McCarthy. (Photo: Courtesy The Nature

Raising the money from those with the most to lose—be they farmers, ranchers, environmentalists, or just suburbanites with the reasonable expectation of clean water coming out of the tap—was the only way to get the work done. But conservatives wouldn’t like the notion of local funding for something they were supposedly already paying taxes for, and liberals would point to the Forest Service’s past practice of allowing loggers in New Mexico’s national forests to cut down large high-value trees while ignoring the dangerous undergrowth. There was also a bad taste left in many liberals’ mouth after the badly managed “Healthy Forests” initiative of the previous decade, which many greens saw as a gift to the timber industry with little benefit to ecosystems.

McCarthy came armed with new ideas. It has been shown, for example, that carefully placed burns of just 2 to 20 percent of a forested area can dramatically slow wildfire spread. She worked with scientists such as Bob Parmenter, who works at the Valles Caldera, a national preserve in the Jemez, to study how different thinning methods could maximize soil moisture retention for better tree health, making them more resilient to climate change. It’s an unconventional idea, because for most of its existence, when managing for production of water, the Forest Service has focused mainly on how a watershed could produce moisture for humans. But that viewpoint is starting to change, says Parmenter, who has probes in the forest soil to continually measure moisture content over the next five years. “We’re letting the trees take what they need.” Other tactics include thinning trees in such a way as to increase snow catch and decrease snow melt, using pulverized trees from thinning to create mulch for living trees to preserve soil moisture, reengineering roads to deliver water back to the surrounding dirt, and even irrigation.

Gordon Grant, a Forest Service hydrologist, thinks that taken together, such forest treatments may have outsize effects. “If you could knock a week or two off the length of the fire season, the cost savings would be in the hundreds of millions,” he said.

These are a few of the innovative methods being employed to make forests more resilient to fire, heat, and drought. (Illustration: Clark Kohanek)

That’s the kind of thing McCarthy’s audiences needed to hear. Among the skeptics she needed to convince were people like Sam Hitt, who for decades was one of the region’s best-known and most strident environmentalists. In 1995, his organization, Forest Guardians, won a temporary injunction to halt the proposed sale of large trees from the Carson National Forest in northern New Mexico. That summer, Hitt and other members of his group decided to gather near the proposed logging site and teach protest techniques like tree sitting to locals, which they could deploy in the event the injunction was lifted. Not long after the boot camp began, a group of loggers decided to launch a counterprotest and set up their own tents, not far from the activists. They made their dislike of Hitt known: An effigy of him appeared swinging from the branch of a ponderosa along the side of Forest Road 274.

Bryan Bird, fresh out of graduate school and newly working for Hitt’s organization at the time, was there. He recalls that after a state trooper stopped by their campsite to say he could not protect them from the loggers, Hitt suggested the activists head over to the opposition for a chat. “I was like, ‘Are you kidding me?’ ” says Bird. He reluctantly went along. At first there was plenty of screaming. “But by the end of the night,” he says, “I had a logger’s arm around me, handing me a cold Budweiser.” (Though Forest Guardians lost its legal fight against the sale, for unrelated reasons the logging never took place.)

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Such storied confrontations among environmentalists, the Forest Service, and loggers rarely take place anymore in northern New Mexico. Hitt stepped down from Forest Guardians 10 years ago and makes his living as an organic farmer. The organization he founded has changed its name to WildEarth Guardians and expanded into half a dozen other states.

Bird, who is program manager for the nonprofit, says that it’s now more cooperative than combative. WildEarth Guardians is a partner with the Forest Service in the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, a federal initiative designed to partially fund and carry out forest thinning in high-priority areas vulnerable to catastrophic wildfires. In 2010, they chose 210,000 acres in the southwest Jemez as one of the 10 initial CFLRP sites. The Forest Service hasn’t been able to come up with the money, so McCarthy proposed tapping the Rio Grande Water Fund.

But Bird has reservations about the fund. He worries that the heavy equipment used for mechanical thinning will compact soil, creating runoff that can damage water quality—just as surely as the August 2011 flood did—and disturb wildlife habitat. “It’s a fine line,” says Bird, “from where we might have ecological benefit and where we might cause more harm than good.” He’s also wary of McCarthy’s plan to raise money from nontraditional sources, especially private corporations, to pay for work on public lands. “We’d rather [it] be entirely funded by Congress and the Treasury so we know the greatest good is going to the greatest number of people,” he says.

We have just a short window of opportunity to make our forests more resilient. Time is of the essence.

Craig Allen, ecologist, U.S. Geological Survey

For Sam Hitt, the well is poisoned; he feels there have just been too many mistakes in the past to allow for any future trust. Anyway, he says, “I think the wild forces of nature are better managers of nature than the federal agencies.”

McCarthy knew that convincing the other side of the political divide was going to be just as hard. Conservatives would be wary of an environmental group asking them for money and would need, she says, “a lot of persuading that The Nature Conservancy didn’t have a hidden agenda and that we would be an honest broker of this collaboration.” The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District, an organization that manages flood control and irrigation for farmers and the city of Albuquerque through a series of channels and diversion dams, was one such challenge. The MRGCD’s board is made up of seven elected members, including an environmental lawyer and a fifth-generation chile farmer. They meet twice a month in a plain adobe-style building near Albuquerque’s downtown to figure out how to manage an increasingly scarce water supply. Because of forests’ integral role in maintaining that water supply—for instance, by shading snowpack so less water evaporates and more trickles into the Rio Grande—McCarthy thought the MRGCD would be a natural fit to join the water fund’s coalition.

So 18 months ago, McCarthy asked the board for some time. She wasn’t asking for full buy-in to the water fund, just a $25,000 contribution to help pay for a study that needed to be done before restoration work could begin. “The more burned areas we have, the less water we’re going to end up with,” she told them.

Several board members were enthusiastic about the idea. “I actually support this and I will tell you why,” said board member Karen Dunning. “As I go around talking to people, drought is on everybody’s mind. We need some real leadership.”

Others expressed skepticism. “I’m just not sure The Nature Conservancy is something I’m comfortable with,” said Chris Sichler, the chile farmer. He added, “It used to be the Forest Service was responsible for managing the forest. Where are they in this picture? It kinda sounds like they’re getting a pass.”

“I wouldn’t say they’re getting a pass, sir,” McCarthy replied. “I would say what they’re getting is public pressure at a level they’ve never experienced before.”

Sichler voted against McCarthy’s request, and the measure failed on a 3–3 vote (one board member was absent). But as McCarthy drove back to her office in Santa Fe, she wasn’t discouraged. “To me a no is a challenge to develop deeper relationships, to understand their perspective more,” she says.

An experiment under way at Los Alamos National Laboratory seeks to understand the exact combination of warming and drought that will kill trees like this juniper. (Photo: Courtesy

Trees dying from climate change is not just a New Mexico problem. A 2009 research paper by Craig Allen, the ecologist advising McCarthy, documented close to 100 incidents around the globe, from Brazil to Australia to China, of forest die-offs linked to warming temperatures. Such losses exacerbate climate change, as trees absorbing carbon dioxide begin to release it instead. The Rio Grande Water Fund, then, with its dual mission of reducing catastrophic wildfires and helping forests become more resilient, could be a model applied globally.

Nate McDowell is one of the scientists trying to figure out what’s killing the trees. On a warm July afternoon, the 42-year-old tree physiologist, who works for Los Alamos National Laboratory, roamed Technical Area 49, a plot of land located off a lonely highway in the Jemez, taking measurements for a tree mortality study he started two years ago. He was sunburned and sweaty, his sandy brown hair tucked under a baseball cap. A portable radio attached to the waistband of his khaki shorts squawked safety announcements: Testing of explosives is also done in Area 49.

“These guys are hurtin’,” he said of two scraggly trees. McDowell’s subjects are 80 juniper and pinyon trees, both common in the area around Santa Fe and Los Alamos. Junipers are well adapted to New Mexico’s dry spells: They can shut down water circulation to individual branches, helping the tree survive drought. Still, this drought, which long ago decimated less sturdy pinyon pines, has started to kill off junipers. Allen said he was surprised when they “started to go belly up last summer. They’re so tough that we all thought, ‘Really?’ ”

McDowell’s experiment, the largest of its kind, measures how these trees cope with decreased water availability and higher temperatures. Study subjects are encased in conical chambers made of UV-blocking plexiglass, open to the sky, that raise the temperature within by 5 degrees Fahrenheit. An air conditioner blows cool air in through the bottom of the chamber if it gets too warm. To further stress the trees, custom-built gutters carry away 40 percent of rain or snow.

By forcing extreme conditions on his arboreal subjects, McDowell hopes to figure out what it takes to kill different tree species so scientists can more precisely predict where and when the next substantial tree die-offs will occur. Right now, those climate models that take tree mortality into account do so simplistically, and McDowell and others worry they consequently underestimate how the death of huge numbers of trees will increase temperatures.

Though not all of McDowell’s data are in yet, early indications point to opportunistic insects killing his trees. They’re taking advantage of stress to the trees caused by the combination of thirst and starvation. To conserve moisture under dry conditions, the trees close their stomata, microscopic pores on their needles through which water evaporates. When stomata are closed, the trees cannot absorb carbon dioxide to perform photosynthesis, robbing them of their ability to eat. The longer the drought, the hungrier the trees get. In this weakened state, they struggle to fight off parasites like bark beetles.

Even if more regular rains return, as long as temperatures continue rising, the outlook for forests in the West is not good. McDowell coauthored a paper with Allen and others, published in the March 2013 issue of Nature, indicating that when temperatures rise, the atmosphere becomes exponentially “spongier,” sucking up more and more moisture from rain and snowfall. That means less water for the trees. “Forests don’t care about precipitation; they care about the amount of water they can actually use, which is precipitation minus evaporation,” says Park Williams, an assistant professor at Columbia University and the paper’s lead author. “As the temperature rises, there is less and less water available for them.”

I'm an optimist. There’s a lot of obstacles in the way of getting this done, but at some point we need to do something.

Chris Sichler, chile farmer, San Antonio, New Mexico

The Las Conchas Fire sent a 30,000-foot-high plume of smoke and water vapor into the sky. At some point, whatever was holding the plume up ceased to do so, and the whole plume collapsed, bringing all its weight down onto the fire. Some USFS fire researchers believe that’s the only thing that could have caused the fire to burn for a time at the almost unfathomable rate of half an acre per second. One rancher had to leave her horses in an open corral when she evacuated; they were too frightened to get into trailers. After the fire she found their charred skeletons on the road, their tails in the direction the fire had come from. The horses had been outrun.

McCarthy once took a field trip down an old logging road in the Jemez Mountains to see the worst of Las Conchas’ devastation. The fire had torn open a 30,000-acre hole in the forest. The hillsides, once verdant with ponderosa pine and filled with the caws of pinyons jays and the rustling of red squirrels, were now barren and eerily quiet. Little remained besides blackened stumps and scorched dirt. “I’d never seen anything like it,” she said.

Some mountain tree species like aspen can regenerate below the soil, sending shoots from their roots, but pines need to drop their seeds. Though birds and animals will scatter seeds in the blank space created by Las Conchas, it will take a long time to fill in 30,000 acres, where ponderosas had existed since the end of the last ice age. “It won’t be a forest again in my lifetime,” said Allen. “Nor that of my kids or, if I have any, my grandkids.”

Before Las Conchas, Allen cut down a giant ponderosa in the Jemez and packed out on horseback a five-foot-diameter cross section of its trunk. “I felt bad killing this tree,” he said, “but people wouldn’t believe. These trees were not lying about what was going on down there.”

The trunk has black splotches—scars from past fires that charred the trunk in spots but did not kill the tree. Allen had white arrows with corresponding dates painted on the trunk, pointing to the scars. Dendrochronology showed that the first fire marking the tree had occurred in 1685, the next in 1709, then 1716. The dates continue regularly but stop after 1893. From that point on, humans began suppressing fires in the region. The trunk will soon be displayed in the Bandelier visitor’s center.

Ecologist Craig Allen shows the thick bark that protects this pine tree from low-intensity ground fires. (Photo: Courtesy

Allen has been urging forest managers to embrace the idea of maintaining forests, in ways that not only maximize water for downstream users but also consider the trees’ needs. Gordon Grant, the Forest Service hydrologist, has worked with Allen on this front. He, too, wants “to encourage discussion toward an organized research initiative, a full palette of potential options” for forest managers to consider helping trees become more resilient in the face of climate change. “Many of the things we propose would be difficult to do on a large scale,” he added. “Can you really imagine mulching [all of] the national forests? And yet there may be places where it could be done strategically,” just like with the staggering of prescribed burns.

With that in mind, McCarthy has included studies in the Rio Grande Water Fund’s strategic plan to evaluate in-forest water conservation strategies, such as the one under way in the Valles Caldera. Those tactics probably won’t change the long-term outlook for northern New Mexico’s forests; if the temperature rises another 2 to 4 degrees, as many climate change models predict under a “business-as-usual” emissions scenario, the Jemez’s mixed-conifer forests will be replaced by more drought- and heat-tolerant vegetation. Still, McCarthy believes, the shift doesn’t have to be abrupt. The water fund could slow down the process, giving the Jemez Mountains ecosystem more time to make a graceful transition. The barren hole left behind by Las Conchas, she said, “was not graceful.”

In April, McCarthy returned to the MRGCD. By then she had spoken privately with board members and knew that at least one, Eugene Abeita, had driven a logging truck when he was younger, and he had not forgotten environmentalists’ battles with the industry. “They put a lot of people out of work up there,” he told McCarthy.

Bearing that in mind, this time McCarthy brought with her Brent Racher, president of the New Mexico Forest Industry Association, a trade group. “This is going to be a ramp-up of the industry, and that’s why I’m very much in support of it,” Racher told the board. He estimated that the water fund could create about 600 new jobs. “This is growing businesses, growing the workforce.”

McCarthy recalled Sichler’s distrust of working with an environmental group, so she emphasized that the board’s helping to fund the study wasn’t a contribution to The Nature Conservancy. “This is about getting studies completed so that the work can proceed, and not about my organization,” she said afterward.

Though she wasn’t able to convince Abeita, McCarthy’s arguments may have swayed Sichler, who voted in favor of her request the second time around. “I’m not completely convinced this is going to work,” he said. “I hope it does. I’m an optimist. There’s a lot of obstacles in the way of getting this done, but at some point we need to do something, and I think the district needs to be a part of that.”

The measure passed 6 to 1. John Kelly, who supported McCarthy’s plan from the start and had invited her to come to the first board meeting, believes the group may donate more, but for now, he says, “baby steps.”

Three years after the Las Conchas Fire, the Rio Grande Water Fund launched in July. So far 45 organizations, including large corporations such as Lowes Home Improvement and Intel, have placed representatives on the water fund’s advisory board and donated money to support its setup.

The Forest Service is participating too; the CFLRP and the water fund are forcing the Forest Service to include greater viewpoints on how it manages national forests and to collaborate with outside organizations for science-based forest restoration. Byrd believes the agency is struggling with that. “They do not like that suddenly all these publics are participating intimately in their decision-making process,” he said. But Ian Fox, forestry program manager with New Mexico’s regional office of the Forest Service, said he welcomes relationships with outside groups. The water fund will not only bring the agency badly needed revenue to help with forest thinning but also provide additional scientific expertise and viewpoints. Groups such as The Nature Conservancy, he said, “bring a knowledge base that can be incorporated into these treatments that will allow them to be really the best treatments for the forest in the long term.”

McCarthy feels she must continually show momentum to keep coalition members believing that her plan will come to fruition. She held a kickoff of the water fund in July that included the opening of a demonstration site near a popular Albuquerque hiking area to illustrate what a forest treatment site looks like. One side of the road is a patch of thinned forest; the other side has been left alone. A kiosk with brochures explains the water fund. The demonstration site, McCarthy said, “is to show people what they’re investing in.”

In December, the water fund’s board will solicit bids from logging companies interested in doing the first round of restoration work this summer. How much work gets done will depend on how many donations McCarthy can procure. She recently received a $400,000 pledge, the first directed specifically for restoration work in the forests. She has a ways to go though; the goal is $21 million, so she doesn’t expect to get there this first year. “There are many stakeholders and partners who have the ability to contribute to the funding goal,” she says, “and our job is to build the coalition that helps solidify the funding.”

In the meantime, she keeps tweaking her PowerPoint presentation and settling in behind the wheel of her Prius. Somewhere out there, amid the folding chairs and weak coffee of a group’s budget meeting or strategic planning retreat, she’ll shake hands with someone who hasn’t yet heard of the Rio Grande Water Fund.

Additional reporting by Paul Tullis.