In 2011, a downed power line sparked the massive Las Conchas wildfire that roared through homes and scorched 156,000 acres of forest in the Jemez Mountains. And that was just the beginning of the damage. In the weeks that followed, rains washed tons of ash and sediment off the blistered slopes into the Rio Grande, forcing the city of Santa Fe to shut down a river diversion system for six weeks.

The fire’s impact on a major Santa Fe drinking water source is a big reason city officials are now considering joining a collaborative brought together by The Nature Conservancy to thin and burn thousands of acres over the next 20 years in mountain ranges that drain water into the Rio Grande. The partnership hopes the plan will reduce the kind of catastrophic wildfires that wreaked havoc in the West over the last several years.

“Our interest is managing the watershed for water quality,” said Rick Carpenter, the city’s source of supply manager.

But as city officials consider joining the group, known as the Rio Grande Fire and Water Source Protection Collaborative, the science is still changing. New studies question how, and where, fire and tree thinning in Western forests should be used to restore forest health and protect watersheds. The studies, and the move toward treating forests across large landscapes, are fueling some old debates over the best way for people to manage forests that have been dramatically altered during decades of fire suppression, logging and overgrazing.

One such study by a team of 11 scientists from Canada and the United States, published in 2014 in the Public Library of Science, found that long before human intervention, a mix of fires of low, medium and high intensity in Western ponderosa pine and mixed-conifier forests were more common than previously believed.

Citing such studies, Jan Boyer and Arthur Firstenberg of the Santa Fe-based Once A Forest are among those who vehemently oppose prescribed burns and thinning any old-growth trees.

They believe allowing fires to burn and setting prescribed fires add to climate change by adding carbon to the air. “Save every tree you can because it is absorbing carbon and storing all the carbon it encountered in its lifetime,” Boyer said.

To be sure, forests are a tough and complicated resource to manage. Decisions are colored by politics, tradition, economics, public fears and ecology.

In general, foresters and fire ecologists believe more fire on the ground and some thinning are the best option for helping forests survive the megadroughts and warmer temperatures predicted by climate models for the Western United States.

The official policy of the U.S. Forest Service recognizes the benefits of fire in forests and advocates actively guiding fires without just stomping them out. Still, the Forest Service “continues to aggressively suppress 98 percent of fires regardless of whether they were ignited by people or nature, at a cost of more than $1.5 billion a year,” said Timothy Ingalsbee, a former firefighter and head of the Oregon-based Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology.

The exception to all-out suppression is in the Southwest, which is leading the country in using fire to help forests, Ingalsbee said.

Carpenter thinks joining The Nature Conservancy group, which has 29 government, nonprofit and private landowners so far, will give the city a better position to work with other agencies on projects that will help protect local water supplies. The collaborative has representatives from local, state and federal agencies, land grants, river restoration and environmental groups. Organizers are hoping pueblos and tribes along the Rio Grande also will join the group.

“We have a vision that people can play a role in helping forests and watersheds be more resilient to wildfires and higher temperatures based on a scientific foundation,” said Laura McCarthy, director of government relations for The Nature Conservancy in New Mexico.

Saving water, money

The collaborative will focus on reducing wildfire risks and maintaining watersheds in the Sandia and Manzano Mountains, the Jemez Mountains, the San Juan and Chama rivers and on the western slope of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.

Scientists have modeled debris flow following fires in the Central New Mexico mountains and mapped the density of forests. They believe about 30,000 acres of forests a year need to be treated to begin changing fire behavior in the mountains, according to information from The Nature Conservancy.

Bill Armstrong, longtime fire ecologist for the Santa Fe National Forest, puts the estimate higher. “By my calculations, we need to be burning between 40,000 and 60,000 acres a year over the next 10 years just to accomplish a first entry into the fire-dependent vegetation types on this forest,” he said.

McCarthy said treating the forests to reduce the intensity and size of fires will ultimately save money. Thinning forests costs less than half the price of damage from wildfires, according to The Nature Conservancy.

The 2011 Las Conchas Fire cost an estimated $246 million in suppression costs and lost property. The total cost of the 20- year plan to treat forests in the four mountain ranges is estimated at about $420 million, according to The Nature Conservancy.

Even those who think prescribed burns and thinning can help forests say it depends a lot on where the work is focused. One such person, Bryan Bird with the nonprofit group WildEarth Guardians, believes the best place to put money is on projects to prepare communities for fires and floods.

“Fire and flooding are inevitable. It will happen. We can only have minute influences,” he said. “We can fireproof our communities, but we cannot fireproof our forests, especially in light of drought and climate change.”

Roller-coaster fire policies

Collaborative efforts like the one promoted by The Nature Conservancy to restore and maintain forest health across whole mountain ranges are catching on. A two-decade-long joint effort by the city of Santa Fe and the Santa Fe National Forest to reduce fire hazards and maintain the watershed feeding two municipal reservoirs was among the first. More recently, the Santa Fe National Forest, Valles Caldera National Preserve and several groups are working to restore natural cycles of fire in the Jemez Mountains.

But a century ago, forest managers saw fire only as a threat to put out. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, drought-stricken Michigan, Wisconsin, South Carolina and Washington each had megafires that burned between 1 million and 3 million acres and killed almost 2,000 people. Then in 1910, a few years after the U.S. Forest Service was established, fires raced across 3 million acres of forest lands in Idaho and Montana, killing 85 people. Firefighters called it the Big Blowup, and it changed fire policy. Total fire suppression became embedded in Forest Service culture, according to the Forest History Society.

Even back then, forest and fire ecologists knew fire played an important historical role in Western forests. Ponderosa pine forests in the Southwest had ground fires come through every decade or less, burning off grasses, brush and small trees without harming the larger trees. Hotter fires that killed and replaced whole stands of mixed conifer and higher elevation forests occurred less frequently, every few hundred years. Some trees, wildlife and birds depended on post-fire landscapes for their survival.

As fire was suppressed, the role wildfires had played in keeping forests healthy for thousands of years ended. Pine needles that normally would have burned off piled up for decades. Logging and livestock grazing further changed forest structure.

By the 1990s, the Forest Service policy shifted back to fire as a tool. Forest managers were encouraged to let fires burn where they could help forests and did not endanger communities or other resources.

The Southwest had been in a two-decade wet period that helped dampen fires, but that ended in 1996, said Craig Allen, a scientist who has studied forest and fire ecology in the Jemez Mountains for decades.

The changes in forests brought by decades of fire suppression, logging and grazing met up with drought. And New Mexico mountains began to burn in a way they hadn’t for more almost a century.

By the time the fires began to burn, more people had built homes in the forests and many were ill designed to withstand fire.

Faced with millions of acres of forests they now thought were overgrown and prone to major fires, and more people living near those forests, the Forest Service ramped up prescribed burns. But when one set in Bandelier National Monument led to the Cerro Grande Fire in 2000 that burned 47,000 acres and destroyed more than 200 Los Alamos homes, planned burns got a black eye.

Fire officials have allayed many of those fears. Los Alamos has regular prescribed burns now in the canyons below the town and inside the town. The city of Santa Fe and the Forest Service have periodic burns in the municipal watershed. And the collaboration in the Valles Caldera National Preserve has conducted several thinning and prescribed burn projects.

But there’s still pushback.

Different opinions

Firstenberg of Once A Forest said while it is impossible to stop all fires, the Forest Service should return to the old policy of stopping as many fires as possible. “The only intelligent response is to put out the ones we can, not to go around intentionally burning,” Firstenberg said.

But fire suppression ignores the historical role fires have played in many Western forests and the role it can play again in helping forests survive climate change, Allen said.

Fire’s role in forests varies depending on the mountain ranges, types of trees and drought.

Allen said decades of studies in the Jemez Mountains show ponderosa pine forests had adapted to the low-intensity ground fires that rolled through every decade or so until they were stopped beginning in the early 1900s. There were a few high-intensity fires — the crown fires that kill everything in their path — but they were only a few acres and less frequent, Allen said.

The Sangre de Cristos east of the Jemez also had frequent low-intensity fires in the ponderosa pine forests. Every few hundred years, much larger, hotter fires in the high elevations burned out forests of one species and replaced it with another.

“The last stand-replacing fire in the Pecos Wilderness [above the Santa Fe’s municipal watershed] was 1695,” Allen said. “It’s due for another one.”

While even The Nature Conservancy talks about how much larger fires have become in the last few decades, that isn’t the biggest issue, Allen said. “We know there were many big fires burning before the 19th century. In 1748, for example, most of the mountain ranges in the Southwest had fires burning on them.”

The problem is big fires now are burning hotter across more acres now than before, wiping out forests and seed banks that were only adapted to low-intensity fires. The fires are so hot, trees aren’t growing back the way they once would have after fire.

Collaborative projects like those in the Jemez Mountains are important to help fire return to the landscape without wiping out everything in its path, Allen said.

Paul Davis, former manager of Sandia National Laboratories’ Environmental Risk and Decision Analysis Department, is skeptical of the burn and thin approach. He believes putting any money into prescribed burning and thinning fails to address the cause of most forest fires: people. Las Conchas and Cerro Grande, the two largest fires in the Jemez Mountains since 2000, were both human-caused.

“The key is to not let humans start fires in the first place,” said Davis, who runs a consulting business now called EcoLogic. “It would be cheaper for them to buy every house that burns, instead of spending money on this.”

Davis is more than a little jaded about the ability of the Forest Service to manage fires. His house was one of six that burned down during the 2008 Big Springs Fire in the Manzano Mountains, a circumstance he blames on a back-burn set by the Forest Service to help fight the wildfire.

Davis said he’s read through The Nature Conservancy’s Rio Grande forest restoration plan and finds many problems.

He said its “fatal flaw” is not analyzing by how much the projects will reduce wildfire risks to water supplies. “When you are asking people to spend this kind of money, you should know what you are getting for your money, and here you should be getting a reduction in risk,” Davis said.

The Nature Conservancy believes there is plenty of hard evidence that prescribed burning and thinning mitigate wildfires and protect water sources. They point to research from the U.S. Geological Survey, NASA and insurance companies that predict wildfires will only get hotter and more destructive in the years ahead.

“We created a comprehensive plan, which is a living document and, as such, will evolve and be modified as new studies are completed,” said Tracey Stone of The Nature Conservancy. “With the state’s fire history, research and information we have now, we wanted to provide a blueprint for moving forward.”

Contact Staci Matlock at 986-3055 or smatlock@sfnewmexican.com. Follow her on Twitter @StaciMatlock.

(25) comments

Michael Grimler

We should be more worried about farting cows...and, the hot air coming from congress and the current administration.

Steve Harbour

Nearly every forest in the state has been logged, sometime to excess, in the past 100 to 120 years. That means they can get nearly all the data they need but I'm sure that data doesn't support their results.

Khal Spencer

Interesting story about the history of logging in the Jemez at this link:
http://home.comcast.net/~jemrec/jemez/logcamps.html

to quote the author "...The effects of all the logging done on the Cañon de San Diego land grant by White Pine Lumber Company and its successors can still be seen today. Because of the lack of scientific forestry practices, many of the timber stands have grown back as thick "doghair" (thin, spindly, and essentially worthless) pine. The U.S. Forest Service has a tremendous challenge on its hands in attempting to manage these lands. "

Pretty much sums it up. Lousy practices and regrowth of very thick stands of young pine during the wet decades following the transfer of the land to the Forest Service has left us the mess we have now, which contributed to the fast moving crown fire of 2011. Had someone fixed the electric line and cleared trees from around it, maybe that fire would not have happened. Or maybe a lightning strike would have done the job.

Like Paul Davis, I am not convinced these guys have their ducks lined up, but neither am I in agreement with those below who say we should not manage the forests. We really have no choice. We broke them, we need to either fix them or see what happens to them on their own. Maybe nature should take care of itself, but we circumvented nature. Besides, I don't think that is a politically viable solution.

S. Ulrich

" the science is still changing" -- no, science is not changing. The conjectures, the data, the theories, the studies, are all aswirl.

Science is a way of knowing, the best and only way of knowing very much about the real world.

Bad writing. Not atypical.

carol Johnson

What is The Nature Conservancy up to? TNC and Dow Chemical are collaborating on "conservation projects" - give me a break TNC.

Cate Moses

Yup. And The Nature Conservancy (TNC) is the force behind this benign sounding but destructive "Rio Grande Fire and Water Source Protection Collaborative," as reported above. Contact SF City Councilors and say no to our city signing on. Here is a partial list from TNC's website of other "partners":
Chevron Corporation
The Coca-Cola Company
The Dow Chemical Company
Monsanto
Plum Creek Timber Company, Inc.
Royal Dutch Shell
Starbucks Coffee Company

Steve Salazar

The biggest issue for the conservationists is not the thinning of trees, it's creating access to the trees, roads, trails and such. The idea of this makes their blood boil.

They would rather have the forests burn down rather than allow access.

Cate Moses

Joe Morgan, I did not call anyone a name other than their given name. Your idea of "building consensus" is apparently everyone agreeing with your point of view.

Khal Spencer's logic. Driving cars releases carbon. Burning up trees releases carbon. Therefore we should burn up trees and release carbon. ??

Fact: There is no peer reviewed science conducted on prescribed burn areas in the Southwest that indicates that prescribed burns reduce the risk of catastrophic fires. It's that simple. Staci Matlock writes that "The partnership hopes the plan will reduce . . . catastrophic wildfires. Destroying huge portions of our forest and large numbers of its its wildlife residents based on completely unproven "hope" is insanity. Paul Davis addresses this eloquently in the above article.

Khal Spencer

Trees burn and trees die. Did you actually read the article where it says that burns, even massive ones, are a natural part of the fire cycle? Trees are part of the short term biological carbon cycle. When we use fossil fuels to run our cars and power or heat our homes, we are mining and releasing to the atmosphere carbon that has been sequestered in the earth's crust for millenia. That can be seen both in the absolute concentration of CO2 in the atmosphere and in carbon isotopes.

Nature Conservancy somehow linked to Bhopal? Balderdash. Get real with your rhetoric.

Khal Spencer

p.s. My main point was that the good people of Santa Fe city and county, merely by being here and using fossil electricity, heat, and motor vehicles, probably pumps the equivalent of a Las Conchas magnitude fire into the atmosphere every year. And that's carbon that was not in the biosphere for a hundred million years or so. If one wants to worry about atmospheric carbon and what it may or may not do in the coming centuries, one has to look not at prescribed burns, but in the mirror.

Cate Moses

The Nature Conservancy is "partnered with" and funded by Dow Chemical. It says so on TNC's own website, as I wrote. After killing over 4,000 people in Bhopal (where people continue to die from the disaster), Union Carbide fled, declared bankruptcy, and was bought by Dow Chemical, the Nature Conservancy's primary "partner." Dow continue's Union Carbide's tradition of denying all responsibility for Bhopal. The Nature Conservancy's name sounds nice & eco-friendly but, unlike Wild Earth Guardians, Once a Forest, and many other grassroots organizations, the Nature Conservancy is a tool of some of the worst corporate interests. Their website also says they propagate "market-based solutions." Does that sound like an organization that advocates for wild places and wildlife?

Khal Spencer

Interestingly, no one ever mentions that the Indian Government owned 49% of the plant.

Khal Spencer

Yep, they even mention Dow and Coke on their web site. Maybe some nature organizations think they can get something positive done by working with Big Industry and convincing them to incorporate environmental values. Scanning through our donations page for our taxes, we don't donate to them, as it happens.

By the way, bringing up Bhopal is guilt by association, which can be a form of ad hominem argument and is common in dirty politics. Does Nature Conservancy have any connection or complicity to the Bhopal disaster? I see there is a Dr. Cate Moses in Santa Fe who got her Ph.D. at Penn State; not sure if it is you. Speaking of guilt by association, is that Cate Moses somehow complicit in the Jerry Sandusky scandal? Is the entire graduate faculty at Penn State complicit?

See how that works?

Cate Moses

Humans starting forest fires by dropping golf balls filled with the neurotoxin potassium permanganate out of airplanes and helicopters is not a "a natural part of the fire cycle." The only natural causes of forest fires are lightning and lava. If the Forest Service fought every human caused fire, and stopped starting them, and left the naturally caused fires alone, we would have a natural fire cycle.

Craig DeForest

Way to go, Staci! Great questions, comprehensive look.

Khal Spencer

"...Burning one acre of coniferous woods releases 4.81 tons of carbon; ..."

To a first approximation, if your car gets 20 miles-per-gallon and you drive 10,000 miles in a year, you'll produce 4.5 short tons of carbon dioxide. Santa Fe residents can do the math on how many cars are on its car-clogged streets.

Meanwhile, we can either imperfectly try to manage the forests or let nature take its course. The Jemez had gotten particularly overgrown with trees per acre and undergrowth from a century of mismanagement (I regularly XC-ski and bike up there and see it first hand), which is why it looked like a blowtorch in 2011. So those who concern themselves with releasing carbon in the form of fire can do the math on how much went up in the Las Conchas fire, which could just as easily have started from a lightning strike.

We have messed with nature for hundreds of years and are in fact an integral part of the surface environment due to our sheer numbers and industrial overprint. Get used to it. "Saving every tree" is a hilarious thought if one considers what happens when one builds a subdivision. You want to save every tree? Advocate for forced sterilization!

Cate Moses

That figure is for one acre. Bill Armstrong of the Forest Service says here that they want to burn 60,000 acres over 10 years, so that would be 288,600 tons of CO2 released--with no guarantee of any positive results, and with guaranteed pollution of our watershed with potassium permanganate and mass murder of wildlife. Recent peer reviewed science has concluded that not only does prescribed burning not prevent big fires, but that areas that were subjected to prescribed burning are actually more likely to burn again. We've seen that happen in the Jemez. (See the work of William L. Baker, Ph.D., Program in Ecology/Geography, University of Wyoming and Jennifer Marlon, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, for example). Forests do not "grow back" in a severe drought. Wildlife do not "grow back." The fact that some animals survive does not justify dropping napalm on them. Forests, like all ecosystems, are excellent at self regulating. Science is just beginning to understand that. It's religious anthropocentric hubris to think that they need "management." The fact that we have "messed with forests" for as long as we have been messing up this continent does not justify continuing to do so.

Khal Spencer

Good links to those two faculty. I will indeed look at their stuff.

But one acre? 29,000 tons per year? A mere drop in the bucket!

One online estimate** suggests New Mexicans are responsible for 27 metric tons, per capita, of CO2 emissions per year. With a population of about 70,000, that would mean that Santa Fe residents are responsible for about 1.9 million metric tons (which are about 10% larger than short tons) of CO2 release per year. If one believes that anthropogenic CO2 is responsible for increased temperatures and drought stress on trees, that is the very stuff that will be killing the trees, either through death by wildfire, bugs, or starvation due to the trees closing their stomata during times of no water. Your mythical firebombing, napalm and potassium permanganate wielding forest managers don't need to do a thing.

** http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_U.S._states_by_carbon_dioxide_emissions

It is a very good idea to do more research into how to understand and manage western forests and their response to fire, both naturally and human introduced. But spare me the notion that we will not be managing (or mismanaging) them. This isn't the Pleistocene, it is the Anthropocene, and humans are the dominant factor in land use virtually everywhere in the world and especially in the Southwest US. It is the pinnacle of naivete to suggest we can be anything other than that.

Joe Morgan

With detractors like Cate Moses and Jeff E Green it will be hard to build a consensus. I am not sure why Mr. Moses insists on calling folks names, I am not sure what name calling contributes to the discussion. Mr. Green at least makes comments/statements without the need to use over the top untruths.

Blatant untruths like The FS stopping suppressing fires before the 1990's demonstrate that he does not know or understand what he is talking about or he is out to confuse folks with untruths.

It seems that anyone with an ardent opinion consider themselves expert on these matters.

The "experts" are actually the ones we taxpayers pay to manage our forests. The U.S. Forest Service has the publics best interest in mind. Work with them, that is the best answer. Try and be civil while doing so.

Khal Spencer

[thumbup]

Cate Moses

This article is filled with misinformation masquerading as science. There is no science supporting firebombing forests and watersheds with the neurotoxin potassium permanganate--the Forest Service's preferred method of destruction.. The Forest Service stopped suppressing fires decades before the 1990s. The "studies" vaguely referred to here do not take our severe drought into account. Burning up huge swaths of our forests to stop them from burning up is madness. The only voices of reason here are those of Paul Davis and Once a Forest. Bryan Byrd also has a good point that "the best place to put money is on projects to prepare communities for fires and floods." It is t is not a "belief" that allowing fires to burn and setting "prescribed" fires add to climate change by adding carbon to the air. It is a fact. Burning one acre of coniferous woods releases 4.81 tons of carbon; the total released by last fall's Santa Fe burns alone was about 36,950 tons of CO2, and all the mercury, methane, DDT, DDE, and radionuclides that these trees are storing. And what about the already drought stressed inhabitants of our forests? None of those quoted here in favor of firebombing our forests even acknowledges the death and destruction of wildlife. The Nature Conservancy is a tool of Dow Chemical (remember Bhopal?); read about it on their own website under "Partners."

Nathan Urban

For reference, 36,950 tons of CO2 is probably 1% or less of Santa Fe County's annual carbon emissions, going by New Mexico's average per capita emissions. And that figure should be balanced against the expected carbon emissions of whatever subsequent wildfires may be averted by prescribed burns.

Jeff E Green

Intentional burning can be a good thing when it's done right, in appropriate weather conditions, with solid oversight, and on a small scale; model examples exist along the Santa Fe River floodplain between the city's 2 reservoirs, reducing the fire risk in very sensitive areas.

But when you start burning hundreds or even thousands of acres at a time, there is too much potential for catastrophe (a la the Cerro Grande fire) and ecosystem-level damage.

I commend Once A Forest for their work to protect the Santa Fe National Forest, and I don't trust The Nature Conservancy's "comprehensive plan" or Rick Carpenter's estimate that "we need to be burning between 40,000 and 60,000 acres a year over the next 10 years just to accomplish a first entry into the fire-dependent vegetation types on this forest."

That is way too much burning and it will ruin the air quality that attracts so much tourism to Santa Fe, in addition to all the negative ecological impacts and loss of plant / animal habitat.

A naturally caused fire of 40,000 to 60,000 acres in Santa Fe's watershed may be inevitable, but we should not cause such a huge conflagration ourselves.

I'll be sure to talk about this with the mayor and city councilors, as well as the Water, Land Management & Food Security working group of the mayor's Climate Action Task Force, of which I'm a member.

Again, thanks to Once A Forest for bringing this issue to light.

Hi Jeff, Just a quick note that it was forester Bill Armstrong of SFNF who gave the 40,000 to 60,000 acre number, not Rick Carpenter, who is city's source of water supply manager.

Khal Spencer

We really need some public hearings to air this out. Where are these large numbers of burned acres coming from? Where are the calculations and assumptions? How do we know what the place looked like centuries or millenia ago/ One NEPA report** assumed that the 1880's was a reasonable baseline for planning because that was previous to logging. But no mention was made of century or decade long climate conditions that could have made the late 19th Century unique--or highly relevant.

We need to discuss this with the public involved.

** http://a123.g.akamai.net/7/123/11558/abc123/forestservic.download.akamai.com/11558/www/nepa/85311_FSPLT2_264624.pdf

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