A federal judge in New Mexico has dealt a legal blow to conservation groups opposing a U.S. Forest Service plan to thin 1,800 acres near Santa Fe by dismissing their efforts to delay or stop prescribed burns and tree-thinning operations.

The groups, Wild Watershed and the Multiple Chemical Sensitivities Task Force of New Mexico, had argued in a May 2018 federal lawsuit that the agency should halt the projects in the Hyde Park and Pacheco Canyon areas of Santa Fe National Forest until it had completed studies required under federal law to determine the possible environmental effects.

In a court ruling Monday, however, U.S. District Judge James A. Parker said the plaintiffs failed to show the Forest Service had violated federal law in approving the projects without first conducting such studies.

Requirements for environmental studies on federal projects that could affect human populations don’t apply in this case, the judge decided, citing past decisions in similar civil cases involving forest management strategies.

Parker also rejected the conservation organizations’ arguments that the projects didn’t fit in with the overall management plan for Santa Fe National Forest and didn’t take into consideration the best available science for forest restoration.

The Forest Service, which in the fall thinned 140 acres in the areas and last month conducted a prescribed burn on about 500 acres in Pacheco Canyon, applauded the judge’s decision.

“The court’s opinion speaks for itself,” Santa Fe National Forest Supervisor James Melonas said in a statement Wednesday.

“The Santa Fe National Forest will continue to use best available science and land management principles as the framework to restore our fire-adapted forests to their historic conditions,” Melonas said, “and mitigate the risk of high-severity wildfire and other catastrophic disturbances.”

Sam Hitt, a longtime Santa Fe environmentalist and founder of Wild Watershed, a volunteer-driven conservation group, said in an email that Parker’s decision “unfortunately affirms a head-in-the-sand strategy concerning the impacts of tree clearing and burning in roadless forest.”

While Forest Service officials say tree thinning and prescribed burns in densely forested areas help reduce risks of insect infestations and diseases, as well as prevent catastrophic wildfires, these methods of managing forests have sparked controversy.

Hitt and other critics say the procedures kill trees unnecessarily, disrupt and threaten wildlife, can send sediment flowing into waterways and might even increase the risk of wildfire.

The 2018 lawsuit argued that tree thinning in the forest east of Santa Fe would reduce old-growth forest and threaten populations of goshawk, a raptor species, and Abert’s squirrel, a tufted-ear tree squirrel native to the Rocky Mountains.

It also argued that smoke emissions from burns pose public health risks.

In an interview last year about the lawsuit, Hitt said the proposed projects would remove at least 90 percent of the forest cover in the areas targeted for treatment, which he called “intact forest” that had never been logged, lacked roads and was “resistant to fire.”

Parker wrote in his ruling, however, that the Forest Service’s plan for the Hyde Park and Pacheco Canyon areas was focused on cutting smaller trees and unhealthy trees and would leave older growth standing.

“Thinning the crowded stands of young trees will enable the remaining trees to increase their size and health,” Parker wrote.

He also said the thinning project could help improve habitat for such species as the goshawk and Abert’s squirrel.

As far as public health risks from smoke, Parker agreed with the Forest Service that smoke from a large wildfire would create far greater health concerns in surrounding communities. He also wrote that the Forest Service works to mitigate smoke pollution during burns and provides ample notice ahead of planned burns to communities that might be affected.

Hitt said he’s not sure if the plaintiffs will appeal.

General Assignment Reporter

Robert Nott has covered education and youth issues for the Santa Fe New Mexican. He is assigned to The New Mexican's city desk where he covers a general assignment beat.