There is no question that the vast majority of people who care about the condition of our national forests, including the Santa Fe National Forest where I work, agree that healthy forests play an essential role in our overall well-being. Current conversations are reflective of some disagreement on the best way to manage our forests for optimal health in the face of challenges like climate change, insects and disease, and, of course, wildfire.

At the national level, the administration and congressional committees that oversee public lands are relying on the preponderance of scientific research on fire and fire ecology to set policy for land management agencies like the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Service. Recently, Forest Service Chief Randy Moore testified before Congress on the crisis proportions of wildfire in the West.

Northern New Mexico came through the 2021 wildfire season relatively unscathed. But we may not be as lucky in the years to come as persistent drought, higher temperatures, excessive fuels and development in the wildland-urban interface continue.

The large fires and extreme fire behavior in California and Colorado were not caused by forest restoration treatments like prescribed fire and thinning. In fact, land management agencies have not had the funding or the capacity to implement forest restoration at a large enough scale for treatments to change wildfire behavior over large areas. Thinning and prescribed fire will not stop wildfire, but they do change how wildfire burns, reduce how quickly it spreads and make it safer for firefighters on the line.

In the meantime, we have begun the work here in our own backyard. Projects like the Santa Fe Mountains Landscape Resiliency Project rely on science and peer-reviewed research to reduce the risk of high-severity wildfire in our overly dense, dry forests.

If we do nothing, the forest will not be naturally preserved. If we do nothing, the understory will not stay cool and moist and therefore more fire-resistant. If we do nothing, we risk losing the ponderosa pine and mixed-conifer forests on these mountains to the post-fire reality of the 2011 Las Conchas Fire, which burned so hot it left few living seed sources for trees to regenerate.

As the effects of climate change become clearer, we hear more about carbon sequestration. The trees on our mountains are storing a lot of carbon. But if we see another Las Conchas Fire or something even worse, all of that stored carbon would be released into the atmosphere. Thinning out small trees and saplings and putting low- to moderate-intensity fire on the ground also release carbon but on a much smaller scale. And by protecting large living trees, these treatments allow old growth to continue to pull carbon from the atmosphere.

Here in the Santa Fe National Forest, we have multiple examples that demonstrate the same thinning and burning treatments proposed in the Santa Fe Mountains project do make a difference. The most recent case in point is the 2020 Medio Fire, a lightning-caused crown fire that could have devastated the Municipal Watershed and Santa Fe ski basin had it not burned up against a treated area in Pacheco Canyon, giving firefighters the opportunity to contain it north of Forest Road 102. Other documented examples include the 2017 Cajete and Peggy Fires, the 2018 Venado and Aragon Fires, the 2019 Fuel Fire and the 2021 376 Fire.

We all have a vested interest in the best possible outcome for our forests. As an agency, we will continue to review all of the available science, and we hope you will do the same before you make up your mind about the best way to get there.

Debbie Cress is Santa Fe National Forest supervisor.

(2) comments

Jonathan Glass

​This piece aptly highlights the fact that "Current conversations are reflective of some disagreement on the best way to manage our forests..."

It subsequently states that "The large fires and extreme fire behavior in California and Colorado were not caused by forest restoration treatments like prescribed fire and thinning."

I believe that is undisputed​.

To be clear, the local forest debate has been centering around the prospective extent of environmental impacts from the Forest Service's proposed cutting and burning projects.

Emmy Koponen

"if we do nothing, the forest will not naturally be preserved.." I do not feel that any of us wants to do nothing. Restoration is very important. but the word has limited meaning when FS restoration is thinning and burning. I very much enjoyed doing restoration as part of my job at Bandelier in the 80's. Then restoration meant to return a damaged site, from heavy equipment to restore the area to appear that it was in its original state. It included placing "debris"( FS term) , the Park Service allowed much leeway, after cleaning the area by raking, to restore the natural appearance and giving the much needed shade for life to begin again This is very contrary to the FS approach to leaving a barren mess with no shade and no hope of regeneration other than invasive species.

..."if we do nothing, the forest will not naturally be preserved, the understory will not stay cool and moist". can anyone see the sense in this cool and moist statement? When the the trees are gone and the understory smouldered there is no dampness left for the life networks to function.

I urge people to take the very easy hike on the Black Canyon loop and to take the branch towards the watershed. one can view the lack of restoration. seeing is believing.

Those who drive towards Las Vegas have had the opportunity to witness the Cuervito managed fire. It began as a wildfire, but at 100 acres it was managed and grew to 1,600+ acres.

on Friday i could see the Rowe Mesa smoke which appeared to be a very large unusually

colorful prescribed burn.

When the science proves that there is value in burning large areas to reduce the fuel, and this during Covid and drought, and does an EIS i would listen.

I am asking all to question the current narrative. i would ask all to think.

For Tsunami's or Hurricanes , or Floods, what is the plan? We have never been able to stop them. Wildfires really cannot be stopped, and I would love solutions. To "reduce the Fuel is to rob so many of life.

Fires create their own weather. They are scarey. I have jumped over burning logs when fighting a fire in Idaho. The retardants cannot put them out.

I want other options rather than just increasing the FS budget for destroying the existing forest.

Our reservoir has dropped rapidly. Today the paper listed at 27.32 % estimated capacity. There is reason for objection to the SFMLRP!

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