Some local residents are raising concerns about the U.S. Forest Service’s plans for a prescribed burn that could begin next year in Santa Fe National Forest around Santa Fe, Tesuque and Glorieta.

The plan remains largely nebulous, in part because the Forest Service has yet to release a final draft. Santa Fe National Forest officials said at a public meeting in December that the agency plans to restore forest habitat within a 50,000-acre area in hopes of improving the ecology — and preventing massive wildfire — in overgrown areas.

Forest Service officials said this week that they have yet to define which parts of the mountains will be addressed under the plan or in what manner, though it is likely to focus on various thinning and prescribed fire tools, including dropping pingpong ball containers of potassium permanganate, which are used to ignite complex terrain by helicopter.

The Forest Service also said it is collaborating with the Greater Santa Fe Fireshed Coalition — a group of public and private organizations that includes the city of Santa Fe, New Mexico State Forestry, Tesuque Pueblo, the Nature Conservancy and others — which is interested in restoration through prescribed fire.

In 2002, the Santa Fe National Forest and its partners began a project to restore more than 17,000 acres in the Santa Fe municipal watershed, using low-intensity fire to restore growth and prevent disease. The groups agreed a similar strategy to protect areas where wildlands and urban development intersect around Santa Fe also would be important. The proposed multiyear effort, called the Santa Fe Mountains Landscape Resiliency Project, will be the result, the Forest Service said.

A detailed plan is expected to be made public in late April or early May and will launch a likely yearlong environmental review process, officials said.

But critics of a burn say they are concerned Forest Service officials will skimp on environmental assessments and blasted a preliminary plan, outlined in a one-page objectives summary, contending the work could remove 90 percent of tree cover and would use firefighting chemicals that could contaminate water and soil, harm wildlife and produce toxic smoke.

“There hasn’t been much transparency,” said Jan Boyer, a Santa Fe psychotherapist and trauma specialist who has long been an environmental advocate.

Boyer said developing an environmental impact statement is critical; however, such documents are only required by law under federal environmental review for work that would have a significant impact “on the human environment.”

“The enormity of this project means there should be some time taken for the science,” Boyer said.

Santa Fe County Commissioners Anna Hansen and Anna Hamilton introduced a nonbinding resolution that asked the Forest Service to conduct a “comprehensive analysis of environmental impacts” for the project. The resolution, however, was tabled just before a commission meeting earlier this week and will be revised before being presented at an April 9 commission meeting, the commissioners said.

About two dozen people showed up in support of the resolution at Tuesday’s meeting.

Hamilton said she wants to review more information before submitting the new resolution.

“I felt like that context needed to be expanded,” said Hamilton, who also serves as a volunteer firefighter.

“My responsibility is an optimization problem, looking at how we can reduce the public safety problem but do it in an environmentally sound manner,” she said.

Hannah Bergemann, who is leading the project for the Forest Service, said a public comment and scoping process will take place after the final plan is released. Officials also plan to take the public on field trips out to the potential burn areas, she said.

“We are still very much in the stages of refining and developing a proposal,” Bergemann said. “There is a major need to reintroduce low-severity fire into this area. There is a need to improve wildlife habitat, riparian areas … and that is why we want to do this project.”

She said the density of trees in the area also creates unhealthy conditions for the forest and makes the project important for preventing severe wildfires, adding the project is consistent with restoration projects across the West. Thinning trees also is seen as a way to prevent wildfire from spreading into cities.

Bergemann said the Forest Service intends to conduct a thorough environmental assessment but said it is too soon to say whether a full environmental impact statement will be necessary.

The goal “isn’t to devastate these forests,” she said. “We value them immensely. We want to do what we can to basically improve the health and resilience of these forests so they can be resilient to climate change and drought and disease.”

Reporter

Rebecca Moss has covered the environment and Los Alamos National Laboratory for the Santa Fe New Mexican since j2015. In 2018, she was selected to participate in the ProPublica Local Reporting Network.