The Sangre de Cristo Mountains are at the heart of what makes Santa Fe and the surrounding communities so special. They provide much more than a stunning backdrop to a unique place, because 40 percent of all water for the city of Santa Fe flows from the mountains, it is home to a diverse array of wildlife, and there are world-class recreation opportunities including mountain biking, hiking and skiing.
Many tribes rely on the mountains, as they have for centuries, for traditional uses such as hunting, grazing, herb gathering, wood gathering, piñon picking and ceremonies. All of which contribute greatly to our economy, as well as provide a place of respite and connection to the natural world for locals and visitors alike.
Historically, low- to moderate-intensity wildfires burned through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains in lower elevation Ponderosa pine and dry mixed-conifer forests, about every seven to 15 years. Researchers discovered that frequent forest fires are a keystone process to a natural cycle that removes needles, twigs and leaves, and creates space for a lush understory of grasses and other plants that provides rich wildlife habitat, and improves forest and watershed health.
Northern New Mexico is fortunate to be home to some of the top researchers in the world who study the natural history of fires. Their tree-ring studies show evidence of frequent fires dating back hundreds of years. The exclusion of fire in the late 1800s created abnormally dense and unhealthy forest conditions that became ripe for unnatural, catastrophic fires, and insect and disease outbreaks.
For the past 20 years, the Santa Fe National Forest, the city of Santa Fe and many other partners have been restoring fire to its natural cycle in the Santa Fe Municipal Watershed. Water flow from this healthy watershed is some of the cleanest in the West and is inexpensive because it requires little treatment. The partnership is recognized by the Forest Service and partner organizations around the country as a model for how local communities come together with state and federal land managers to improve watershed health and resiliency to fire.
To build on the success, the Greater Santa Fe Fireshed Coalition was established in 2016. The coalition is a diverse group of partners and public entities committed to restoring forests and reducing the threat of uncharacteristic, high-severity wildfires, and supporting communities to be more adapted to wildfire across private, tribal and public lands.
About 60 percent of the fireshed area is within the Santa Fe National Forest, and we are now embarking on a collaborative process to design, plan and analyze the restoration work in the area. This effort will kick off in the next few months and will be open to ideas that members of the public may want to share. While private landowners can reduce the risk of fire impacts on their own homes and property through fire-wise practices, the focus on the national forest will be to protect and enhance the public values and benefits important to all of us — the water, wildlife, recreation, critical infrastructure and other special places of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains.
As firefighters and communities across New Mexico prepare for another challenging fire season, the historically dry winter we are experiencing underscores the importance of the work. Even with the small amount of recent snow received thus far, snowpack remains very low in many areas of the Santa Fe National Forest. The Las Conchas and Pacheco fires in 2011 prove that the impacts of catastrophic fires on forested areas can last for decades. The drastic erosion and flooding pose a real hazard to the health and safety of communities.
The Santa Fe National Forest is a special, sacred and communal place, so it is important that we keep an “open door” to citizen-driven solutions, bring all voices to the table and work together to achieve the common goal of a healthy, sustainable and resilient forest that continues to provide benefits into the future.
James Melonas is forest supervisor, Santa Fe National Forest.