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Photo by Sarah Hyden

The Santa Fe Conservation Alternative, for a truly resilient forest

This piece originally appeared in the Santa Fe New Mexican on June 15, 2019

June 15, 2019

This is a critical time for our forest. The U.S. Forest Service has just released the proposed plan for the 50,000-acre Santa Fe Mountains Landscape Resiliency Project, focused on our nearby Sangre de Cristo Mountains. The 30-day public comment period has begun. This plan involves intensive tree cutting and prescribed burning, intended to moderate fire behavior and restore forest health.

Typical Forest Service thinning treatments remove the vast majority of trees, leaving an open and dry forest. These also remove most of the forest understory, a critical part of forest ecology. The understory is repeatedly burned off as it comes back. Thinning slash is left behind, often for years, promoting bark beetle attack on remaining trees and increasing fire danger. Masticators and other heavy machinery, proposed to be used in this project, compact and damage the forest floor. Wildlife habitat is disrupted. The forest appears barren, sterilized, unhealthy and out of balance.

The Forest Service is beginning analysis of this project with an environmental assessment, a streamlined process that should be used to determine whether to prepare a more comprehensive environmental impact statement, but in reality is often used to push projects through quickly. That shortchanges the environmental review and public participation process.

WildEarth Guardians strongly supports the more comprehensive environmental review and public participation process of an environmental impact statement for a project of this magnitude. The project would impact old-growth forests, roadless areas and threatened species such as the Mexican Spotted Owl. We support sound fire moderation measures and restoration of a healthy forest ecosystem. We also support our forest’s right to simply exist and thrive.

Three conservation groups, WildEarth Guardians, Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife, are working together to create a project proposal alternative called the Santa Fe Conservation Alternative that embodies conservation principles and promotes a genuinely healthy forest ecosystem.

This alternative recognizes that the forest ecosystem is too fragile and complex to be effectively redesigned with widespread and intensive thinning and prescribed burning. Instead, it recommends a very site-specific, targeted and light-handed approach, proceeding cautiously to minimize impacts and monitor the effects of completed treatments. It respects the spirit of the Roadless Rule, which is that roadless areas should be left in a natural and undisturbed state.

This approach protects what is valuable to us from fire by focusing fuel treatments outward from homes and other infrastructure 100-200 feet. It addresses human behaviors that put our forest at risk, including providing information to the public about fire-proofing homes and campfire safety, and closing the forest as long as needed during fire season. It recommends increased forest law enforcement to ensure fire safety is maintained.

Instead of up to 24-inch diameter or larger trees proposed to be removed in this large-scale thinning project, only small diameter trees less than 9-inch diameter would be removed, and would be cut by hand — no use of heavy machinery. Only very dense or strategic areas would be thinned. Trees would be largely left in groupings, as they naturally grow.

Thinning slash greater than 3-inch diameter would not be left through a dry season as it can promote bark beetle outbreak. Slash would be piled and burned, with broadcast prescribed burns only done very infrequently, where necessary. In order to restore fire’s natural role in our forests, naturally caused fires would be allowed to burn when safe to do so.

The Conservation Alternative also supports extensive forest restoration, including decommissioning of nonessential roads, hand-building structures in arroyos and planting native streamside vegetation to slow floodwaters, and reintroduction of beavers.

The scenic quality of all treated areas would be maintained so our local forest will remain a place where we can go to experience the inspiring beauty of what nature creates, not what humans create.

It is urgent for us all to engage, to be guardians of our forest and to send comments about this project to the Forest Service. Information about writing comments for this project is available at wildearthguardians.org.

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About the Author

Sarah Hyden | Santa Fe National Forest Protection Advocate, WildEarth Guardians

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