The Thunderbird and Tajique project areas, totaling 27,500 acres, are located in the Manzano Mountains in central New Mexico. The Mountainair Ranger District of the Cibola National Forest manages 135,000 acres in the mountain range. Both areas have dense stands of ponderosa pine and pinyon-juniper. Excessive tree density and undergrowth, coupled with a high incidence of lightning strikes, limited road access, and intensive recreation, are contributing to a growing risk of wildfires. The State of New Mexico has listed Thunderbird and Tajique in its "Top 20 Communities at Risk."
Because of these conditions, forest health continues to decline, showing poor tree regeneration, few grasses and shrubs, and little species diversity. Environmental stress from high stand densities and the recent drought has increased tree mortality from insects and diseases. The quality of wildlife habitat is also declining as meadows and riparian areas give way to encroaching trees.
Hispanic communities, the Isleta Pueblo, private lands, housing developments, and summer youth camps border the forest. Torrance County has a high unemployment rate and is among the poorest in the country. Many of its communities depend on wood for heating and cooking.