My View: Sam Hitt

Sam Hitt

The roar of chain saws was noticeably absent this fall in the forests near town. We can thank the Mexican spotted owl, a courageous federal judge who exposed Forest Service misdeeds and decades of advocacy by WildEarth Guardians, successor to the scrappy advocacy group I founded 30 years ago.

The bad news is that this de facto wilderness is not permanently protected as congressionally designated wilderness. Worse yet, the Forest Service is rushing to approve a misguided plan to fire-proof nearly 80 square miles from the ski basin to near Pecos. According to Dr. Chad Hanson (“Increased logging won’t prevent forest fires,” My View, Jan. 6), continuous logging/thinning/burning will kill more trees than it prevents from being killed by wildfire. This will render the forest’s wilderness character invalid, a reason I suspect the plan will be quickly approved.

Less than 4 percent of the continental United States retains its primeval character and influence. For what remains locally, we can thank our eccentric community of artists and writers who somehow managed to cajole and at times embarrass federal officials into pausing long enough for the timber industry to grow impatient with delay. The result was that big trees fell by the millions in the more accessible Jemez Mountains (the site of recent large fires) while Santa Fe’s un-roaded headwaters forests were unofficially set aside for their scenic beauty.

Like the current owl injunction, this was a temporary victory (“State, Forest Service team up on stewardship,” Nov. 15). We now need the permanent protection for the awe and grandeur that wild landscapes and ecosystems inspire. As always, the biggest obstacle is the Forest Service and their collaborators who strenuously oppose wilderness designation for the roadless lands buffering the Pecos Wilderness. The recently released Santa Fe National Forest plan recommends no wilderness protection near town. Overall, only 2.9 percent of the forest’s nearly 900,000 remaining roadless acres are recommended for wilderness.

Instead of preserving wilderness, the Forest Service is busy trying to jump-start a rebranded timber industry that targets the few, small wild places that remain. In 2006 Wild Watershed, the Multi-Chemical Sensitivities Taskforce and others appealed the local ranger’s plan to clear most trees and begin regular burning on the slopes above Black Canyon campground. We won this internal review since they disregarded the effects of clearing and burning to the wilderness-quality roadless forests that encompass 93 percent of the nearly 2000 acre project.

Four years later, the Forest Service issued a draft environmental assessment that was never finalized due to opposition by the Obama administration. That quickly changed when Donald Trump assumed office. The Hyde Park Wildland Urban Interface project was “categorically excluded” from detailed environmental considerations despite the presence of endangered owl habitat and wilderness-quality roadless forests. Congress had taken away the right to administratively appeal, so in May 2018 we sued the Forest Service in federal court.

This case hinges on whether Congress gave the Forest Service discretion to do a detailed environmental review or, as the agency argues, a 2003 Bush-era law mandates quick approval without taking a hard look at potential impacts. The Forest Service intentionally misrepresented the law that plainly gives the agency a choice.

They could have protected the extraordinary biological values of these roadless forests by documenting the relevant science and considering reasonable alternatives — in effect, looking before they leaped. Instead they hid behind the fiction of a congressional mandate to avoid evaluating impacts.

Wild forests don’t reappear once cut and plundered. We have just one chance to preserve the irreplaceable. That time is now.

Sam Hitt is the founder of Wild Watershed and president of the Santa Fe Forest Coalition.

(5) comments

Peter Neils

Untrammeled native forests represent a tiny percentage of America's woodlands, but they harbor thousands of years of ecological wisdom awaiting discovery by thoughtful scientists. People who cannot, or will not, understand the obvious value of preserving this repository of natural wealth sadden me...

Michele Dieterich

Local loggers would be served by working in Jack Cohen's community protection zone. and the Home Ignition Zone. I find that these big timber sales serve large logging entities while the local folks end up driving trucks and nothing more. The Community protection Zone work would be hand thinning no more than 1/2 mile from homes and the Home ignition zone would be working with private home owners to make their property fire ready. CPZ work would be endless. As soon as you did a large forest, you would need to start over. Science has shown that logging in the WUI is not cost effective and only "may help lower intensity of forest fires under NORMAL WEATHER CONDITIONS." This is from the last three timber sale Environmental Assessments I have read. Large, stand replacing fires DO NOT HAPPEN in normal weather. They are driven by high winds that are much more prevalent in a thinned, open forest. In my area thinning often results in blow down of the remaining trees because they lose wind protection from thinning. The science does not support thinning to prevent or reduce forest fires.

James Robillard

Here's a discussion of the topic that presents the challenges of forest management. Worth a look...

Cate Moses

Brilliant, Sam Hitt! Climate change science is clear: our best hope is to plant billions of trees, and TO LEAVE EXISTING FORESTS INTACT, as Greta Thunberg has said many times. The Forest Service treats forests--our national treasures--like an agricultural crop, and therein lies the problem. FS destruction has only worsened under Trump. Forests are all we have left of the disappearing wild. The Forest Service has been repeating for decades the lie that humans need to log and burn forests to prevent fires. Science has known for some time that this is completely untrue. Forests are very good at self-regulating their own health, if only the US Deforestation Service would leave them alone.

Richard Reinders

Sam Hitt what are you and your group doing to find alternatives, you endanger all the forest old and new to out of controlled forest fires if you don't manage them. Instead of spending your money on attorneys spend it on foresters to do research and help solve the issue. You endanger the ways of life in New Mexico with your nonsense I have talked to people the harvest wood from the forest to make a living and their Christmas is not going to be very merry this year because they have lost their way of life. Until you understand the culture of this state don't interfere in it.

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