The public has spoken in a landslide of support for protecting and conserving our forest. But the U.S. Forest Service isn’t letting you know about it.
Last June, the public was invited to submit comments concerning the Forest Service’s plans for the controversial 50,566-acre cutting/burning project in our local forest. Over 5,000 comments were submitted by conservation groups, Santa Fe area residents and people from across the country who want this unique and beautiful high desert forest protected.
The comments overwhelmingly opposed the Forest Service’s plans, which include cutting down the large majority of trees on up to 21,000 acres and repeatedly burning up to 43,000 acres. Past projects have left behind barren, dried-out and ecologically damaged forest with little understory, and many members of the public have reported becoming ill from prescribed burn smoke.
Almost all of the comments called for an in-depth analysis due to the project’s large size and impacts on the forest and public health — an environmental impact statement. So far, the Forest Service has refused to do it, and instead is moving forward with a much more abbreviated environmental assessment.
Environmental law requires an impact statement to be completed if the project “may” have significant impacts on resources such as roadless areas, wildlife habitat, soils and recreation. What could be more significant than having large areas of this beloved local forest nearly clear-cut and then burned regularly, resulting in a damaged and ecologically broken landscape? And what could be more significant than the detrimental health effects of frequent exposure to fine particulates from prescribed burn smoke in the air we breathe?
The Forest Service began posting some of the project comments in their online reading room, as is customary so project planning is an open public process. After a few weeks, the Forest Service took the posted comments down and decided not to post them at all, despite having received multiple requests to do so. This prevented the public from understanding how highly controversial the project is.
WildEarth Guardians submitted a Freedom of Information Act request for the comments and received them in February. The Forest Advocate, a forest protection resource site, did a quantitative and qualitative analysis of the comments.
It was found that more than 98 percent of the comments were largely or fully against the project as proposed and want an environmental impact statement, while fewer than 0.5 percent supported the project and analysis as proposed — a powerful mandate by the public against the project as proposed.
Dominick DellaSala, an internationally renowned forest ecologist and climate scientist, submitted in-depth comments stating that he was “greatly concerned that aggressive thinning and road improvements will not protect communities” and that the project “is in an area of high conservation importance to the Santa Fe watershed and the surrounding communities.”
Thousands of commenters urged the Forest Service to seriously consider the Santa Fe Conservation Alternative submitted by WildEarth Guardians, Sierra Club and Defenders of Wildlife — a plan we believe accomplishes community fire protection through fire-wise practices, and protects and conserves our forest through a limited, strategic and site-specific approach.
In June, the draft environmental assessment will be released, and there will be an even more important opportunity for comment. We hope you will join WildEarth Guardians and our conservation allies in telling the Forest Service that it has other options for protecting the forest, watershed and local communities, to complete a comprehensive environmental impact statement, and to ensure an open and transparent process. Make your voice heard — the forest and our health depend on it.
The Santa Fe project comments are now posted at theforestadvocate.org and organized for easy viewing.