A debate about how to mitigate the effects of massive wildfires while keeping forests healthy has arrived in Santa Fe.
The U.S. Forest Service is rolling out a prescribed-burn proposal for forestlands near the Santa Fe Municipal Watershed. It would involve thinning vegetation in the Española and Pecos-Las Vegas ranger districts; allowing for controlled burns of 38,000 acres and smaller efforts to use herbicides; planting of native species; and building of fences to keep cows out of sensitive areas, according to a 250-page environmental assessment for Santa Fe Mountains Landscape Resiliency Project.
The goal is to ease work for firefighters and promote resiliency among plants and animals, the Forest Service says. Environmental advocates counter that thinning and burning could pollute air and water and harm biodiversity.
At a virtual meeting Saturday, organizers of a website called The Forest Advocate brought in speakers to cast light on their concerns. They say the Forest Service is moving away from “restoration” and toward engineering a new, less robust forest.
“The Forest Service must do the analysis with much more specificity and clearly identified locations they intend to treat,” said Sarah Hyden, co-founder of the Santa Fe National Forest Coalition and an editor for The Forest Advocate.
Forest Service rangers have said tribal consulting and gathering other public input will remain part of the strategy, as workers use a “conditions based” approach. At a meeting last week, staff members said that further environmental analysis didn’t seem necessary for the project. “The current conditions will tell us where and what to treat as we move across treatment areas,” said Sandra Jacquez, the new district ranger for Española.
In 2019, the Forest Service mailed consultation letters to the nearby Cochiti, Nambé, Ohkay Owingeh, Pojoaque, San Ildefonso, Santa Clara, Santo Domingo and Tesuque pueblos.
According to the environmental assessment, the plan received support from Tesuque Gov. Milton Herrera, but the assessment didn’t include feedback from other pueblo leaders.
The resiliency plan worries Oregon-based scientist Dominick DellaSala. “The Santa Fe National Forest is in a fork,” he said at Saturday’s meeting. “It’s going down a path that could lead to ecological crisis.”
DellaSala works for a forest conservation group called Wild Heritage and shared some of his research Saturday. He told the nearly 60 meeting participants that thinning out vegetation and prescribing burns can be imprecise — that burns aren’t always carried out where fire would have happened in the first place.
As with all fires, the burns could harm residents’ respiratory health, he added.
DellaSala said his research found most large wildfires occurred on multiuse lands, not in roadless areas like the kind that might be affected by the Forest Service’s proposed project, and suggested more focus on closing roads to improve restoration, as well as fire-proofing nearby homes. Forest Service rangers have acknowledged that the plan could negatively affect some of the roadless areas in the forest during the short term. But they say the long-term outcomes of bringing fire back to the forest are worth it.
DellaSala and others called for more research into how vegetation thinning could impact the habitat of the endangered Mexican spotted owl.
The 30-day public comment period on the draft opened Sept. 30 and all comments received by Oct. 29 will “be analyzed and responded to” prior to any decisions made on the plan.