GLORIETA MESA — A giant Caterpillar tractor rumbled and growled in the background as Cañoncito residents questioned State Land Office representatives Wednesday about why it’s necessary to remove countless trees in a wooded grazing land.
“At one point, we had to move forward so we could hear each other,” area resident Sandy Anderson, 69, said.
The Caterpillar has ground up piñon and juniper trees — which are classified as invasive species — on 400 acres in this rural community south of Santa Fe. The state’s plan calls for thinning trees on 122 more acres.
Known as the Ojo de la Vaca Meadow Restoration Project, it aims to turn a dense woodland into a “mosaic” of tree-clumped fields to create a “savanna-like” landscape. A warming climate and livestock grazing have fostered unnaturally thick stands of junipers and piñons on the land, the project’s report said.
More than 15 residents showed up for the meeting at the site, including a couple of ranchers who plan to let their cattle graze on the land when the project is finished.
Several State Land Office scientists came to explain in more detail the rationale behind the tree thinning.
Reducing tree density lowers wildfire risks and allows more grasses to grow, which is better for curbing erosion, they said.
“That’s the underlying justification for what we’re trying to do,” Michelle Lute, state wildlife biologist, said in a later interview.
Grass has thick root structures that can catch runoff and allow water to penetrate deeper into the soil, Lute said. Fewer trees and more grass also will make it more difficult for pests to gain a stronghold, she said.
Most residents remained unconvinced that mowing down trees and grinding them into mulch is beneficial.
The state scientists were all young and believed in the science they were promoting, said Greta Snow, 61, whose father built a house on the mesa 40 years ago.
“Older people like us have seen the science fail us,” Snow said.
Removing trees to enrich and moisten the soil is “very old science,” she said, adding that the changing climate is making summers hotter and the region drier.
“You have to have trees to have rain come out of the sky,” Snow said.
Anderson said the plan to convert the tract into a diverse grassland has a basic problem.
“We just don’t see how it’s going to become a meadow with cows grazing on it — eating it,” Anderson said.
Increased grazing areas were a “tangential benefit” and not part of the reasoning behind the tree thinning, Lute said.
Lute emphasized the state is thinning and not clear-cutting the land.
They are leaving the more mature trees and not cutting any ponderosa pines, she said.
Although some residents believe the trees reduce heat, junipers and piñons don’t cast a high level of shade, Lute said.
Richard Welker, an area resident, said the State Land Office didn’t appear to have researched how the cutting might affect existing wildlife and their habitat. He remains skeptical of science that justifies humans imposing their will on nature, he said.
“Our view is that science itself is increasingly moving away from the mechanistic mindset,” Welker said, “and towards a view of science … where nature actually has a voice and an intelligence that can and must be consulted.”
The residents seemed to come away unswayed, but the dialogue was constructive and respectful, said Angie Poss, State Land Office spokeswoman.
Residents didn’t learn about the project until it was well underway, Anderson said. They heard the equipment and drove out to investigate, she said.
The State Land Office isn’t required to notify neighbors of a tree-thinning project, Poss said. The office posted a notice on its website and on social media, but it will consider doing more in the future — perhaps mailing letters or posting roadside signs alerting people of the upcoming work — Poss said.
Welker agreed the state should improve communication. Wednesday’s informal meeting was a good start, he said.
”Most people came together in the end to speak with one another despite differences,” Welker said. “I think this last thing is of great value for future community forums trying to find solutions to what we commonly face.”