Reader View: Learn to leave the forests alone

One of the largest prescribed burns conducted by the U.S. Forest Service in the Santa Fe Watershed will have been ignited by the time you read this (“Prescribed burns are scheduled for S.F. watershed,” Oct. 11). Almost four square miles of pristine old-growth forest will be incinerated, releasing an estimated 11,712-and-a-third tons of carbon into the atmosphere and causing massive erosion of ash into our reservoirs.

Because the perimeter is ignited first and the rest goes up quickly with aerial firebombing, the thousands of animals within those four square miles will be cremated. Unlike smoke from natural fires, smoke from prescribed burns contains the gasoline and diesel fuel used to burn the perimeter, and manganese dioxide, the combustion product of potassium permanganate that is fire-bombed from helicopters. Manganese dioxide is six times more toxic than mercury, and it is flowing into our reservoirs.

The proposed destruction of 2,435 acres is not “thinning underbrush;” it is deforestation. (That figure could be minus 650 acres after the burn area was reduced because of air-quality concerns; these acres could be burned later, however.) The scale of today’s prescribed burns would have been unthinkable a few years ago. Many Santa Feans have become so accustomed to the year-round burns that they’ve forgotten what blue skies look like and what fresh air smells like. People think they have allergies, asthma or respiratory infections when it is toxic smoke causing their distress and exacerbating these conditions.

Most people would be surprised to learn that the Forest Service has repeatedly stated that its goal is to destroy 95 percent of the trees in public forests.

The beneficiaries are the private contractors conducting toxic burns — and the Forest Service that profits from the logging “fire sales” that precede the burns.

The Forest Service spews constant propaganda about “successful” prescribed burns. Only prescribed burns, they tell us, can prevent “catastrophic fire.” In reality, more than 900 prescribed burns become out-of-control wildfires every year. The most destructive fire in New Mexico history, the Cerro Grande Fire, was a prescribed burn set by the U.S. Park Service. The only catastrophic fire in our watershed, even in years of intense drought, is the one that just emitted toxic smoke.

The truth is that nothing — especially not prescribed burns — can prevent catastrophic fires. This is accepted current fire ecology science. People need to learn how to live with forests and fires.

Our mayor and City Council regularly vote without discussion to incinerate our fragile watershed. Every time an expensive burning project comes before the City Council, the Forest Service rounds up and parades the usual “citizens” to speak in favor of it. Every one of them is either a Forest Service employee, a contractor or, like the Forest Stewards Guild and the Monsanto- and Dow Chemical-funded, pseudo-environmental group The Nature Conservancy, lobbyists for the logging and private burn contracting industries.

Concerned locals with no profit motive who speak out against the burns are regularly disrespected and ignored by the City Council and mayor. At least one city councilor is vacationing during the current burn.

In every burn news release, the Forest Service writes: “Smoke-sensitive individuals, including young children and the elderly, and people with respiratory problems are encouraged to take precautionary measures.” Like what? Vacation to somewhere the Forest Service is not incinerating? Stop breathing? Wear a respirator to work or school or daycare?

Current science has proven that a forest subjected to prescribed burning is more — not less — likely to burn. If the Forest Service was ethical and acting on science, it would stop burning now. Forests do a very good job of self-regulating if left alone. Science is only beginning to understand their complex mechanisms for doing so. But there is no money in leaving forests alone.

Cate Moses is a Santa Fe naturalist, educator and member of the local grassroots environmental group, Once a Forest.

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