Conservation groups want the courts to block the U.S. Forest Service from thinning more than 1,800 acres of forest near Hyde Memorial State Park until the agency has prepared a comprehensive environmental study weighing the effects of all such thinning projects planned in the area.
In a federal lawsuit filed Thursday, Wild Watershed and the Multiple Chemical Sensitivities Task Force, together with two individual plaintiffs, charge that the Forest Service’s Hyde Park project violates federal law.
In the case, which was assigned to U.S. Magistrate Kirtan Khalsa, the plaintiffs seek a court order requiring the Forest Service to consider the consequences of the Hyde Park project together with other forest-thinning projects the agency and others plan to conduct on roughly 107,000 acres in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in coming years.
About 40 percent of the land the Forest Service wants to work on is in roadless areas, the suit says.
The Forest Service has been working with other entities — together called the Greater Santa Fe Fireshed Coalition — on planning the projects. Other members include Tesuque Pueblo, the city of Santa Fe, The Nature Conservancy and the New Mexico State Forestry Division.
Bruce Hill, spokesman for the Santa Fe National Forest, said Thursday he hadn’t reviewed the lawsuit and couldn’t comment on it.
The Forest Service announced in March that it intends to start cutting-and-burning operations as soon as this fall in an area east of Hyde Park Estates. The agency generally plans to cut trees smaller than 16 inches in diameter and burn them on-site. Officials say the work is necessary to reduce the risk of catastrophic fire.
In approving the project northeast of Santa Fe, Española District Ranger Sandy Hurlocker concluded that the Forest Service wasn’t required to prepare a full environmental study. He said the project was exempt because work there would reduce the risk of damage to the forest from insects and disease.
Sam Hitt, a veteran Santa Fe environmentalist and founder of Wild Watershed, said Thursday that the Forest Service’s approach would remove at least 90 percent of the existing forest cover. And he said there is no proof the work would reduce the risk of a catastrophic fire.
“The bottom line is that protected areas burn far less frequently than logged-over areas, or roaded areas,” Hitt said. “There’s good research to show that. This area probably never has been logged. There’s no evidence of roads in there. It’s an intact forest and it’s resistant to fire.”
Hitt said that if the Forest Service ultimately prepares an environmental impact statement, his group would submit an alternative plan to address the issues of fire and protection of wildlife habitat.
“We’re not asking for nothing to be done,” Hitt said. “We just want a chance to put forth an alternative that doesn’t involve massive clearing of trees and environmental destruction.”
The Forest Service proposed a similar project in the Hyde Park area in 2005 but withdrew it in 2006 after environmentalists appealed the lack of detailed analysis.
Hannah Bergemann, fireshed coordinator for the Santa Fe National Forest, said Thursday that the agency plans to begin work on the Hyde Park project as early as October. She said the agency hasn’t yet awarded a contract for the project, which could take up to three years to complete.
Bergemann said the Forest Service also intends to sign a contract in coming weeks for a similar project north of Hyde Park, called the Pacheco Canyon project, where plans call for thinning some 2,500 acres. She said work there could begin as early as July.
Of the 107,000 acres under consideration for thinning, Bergemann said the Forest Service manages about 70 percent while other agencies control the rest. She said the agency intends to begin an environmental study considering other projects in the area within the next couple of years, while work on Hyde Park and Pacheco Canyon projects is ongoing.
Bergemann said the need to reduce the fire danger in the Hyde Park project area is urgent. “We are concerned about the dry conditions,” she said.