U.S. Forest Service, be accountable — to our forest and to us. The recent court order resulting from a lawsuit filed by WildEarth Guardians, placing an injunction on timber management activities due to the Forest Service’s insufficient monitoring of Mexican spotted owl populations for 23 years, was about accountability (“Judge saves Christmas tree, but larger issues remain,” Oct. 28). The Mexican spotted owl population in our Southwestern forests has been in decline for decades, and the Forest Service has not obtained the required population trend data.
Why is this so important? Endangered species are important in themselves, but the declining Mexican spotted owl population is also an indicator that our forests are becoming increasingly unhealthy. It’s unclear to what extent timber management activities are adversely impacting both the owl population and forest health. We should have that information, but we don’t.
Now the Forest Service intends to undertake an approximately 50,566-acre intensive thinning and prescribed burning project in our local forest, the Santa Fe Mountains Landscape Resiliency Project. In past projects, the vast majority of trees have been removed in thinned areas, often leaving what appears to be a highly damaged ecological wasteland. The Forest Service is required to have extensive monitoring data for various parameters of forest health in order to guide project planning, but it does not. Officials are required to analyze any project that could have significant impacts on forest resources or on the human environment with the most thorough level of analysis available, an environmental impact statement. Instead, they have unnecessarily started with a lower level of analysis, an environmental assessment. Indications are they do not intend to do a environmental impact statement.
This project also involves serious impacts to us — the Forest Service proposes to burn up to 43,000 acres of the project area repeatedly. This year, prescribed burning occurred the majority of days since spring, and many days one could not even see the Jemez Mountains because of the poor air quality. The heavy smoke pollution seriously affected the health of many sensitive people, and it’s not good for anyone. The Forest Service must be accountable for documenting health impacts from so much prescribed-burn smoke. It currently has no process in place to do so. Also, the number of days per year that it does prescribed burns must be limited to protect public health.
There seems to be an increasing hostility on the part of the Forest Service, and agencies and organizations collaborating with it, toward members of the public who want a full range of science incorporated into project planning. At public meetings, only the relatively narrow range of science it chooses to consider is presented, even though there is much current science that calls into question the efficacy of the intensive thinning and prescribed burning the Forest Service proposes to do. Critical science that supports conserving our existing forests gets dismissed from the project process.
It has been customary for the Forest Service to post public comments as part of project analysis online so it is an open process. This time, the Forest Service has decided not to post the public comments. The public is being kept in the dark. Accountability means conducting an open and inclusive project planning process, as environmental law requires.
The only way officials at the Forest Service will be accountable is if we require them to be. WildEarth Guardians has caused some accountability to be required as a result of the Mexican spotted owl legal action. Accountability for the upcoming local forest thinning/burning project would include completion of an environmental impact statement. It would also include seriously considering the Santa Fe Conservation Alternative, created by major conservation groups to protect and conserve our forest.
Sarah Hyden lives by the Santa Fe National Forest and does what she can to protect the forest.