The Sangre de Cristo Mountains rise in beauty behind Santa Fe. They are home for species ranging from rare giant helleborine orchids to the tiny threatened American pikas, along with our state’s iconic bald eagles, mule deer, cougars and black bears.
Because the many life forms in the mountains face complex and diverse challenges, Santa Fe County, conservation organizations, biologists and forest specialists are urging Santa Fe National Forest to consider a wider range of tools in their Landscape Resiliency Plan.
The fire triangle — three components needed for fire: oxygen, heat, and fuel — contains more than just fuel. High wind speeds, and heated and dried plants and soils play crucial roles. We live in a world increasingly altered by climate change. Restoring forest resiliency requires new tools and integrated approaches to managing more forest values than those identified in past environmental assessments and silviculture methods.
What are these new tools and integrated approaches?
Fungi that form mutually beneficial relationships with plant roots (mycorrhizae) can boost plant water use efficiency and resiliency to drought, decrease erosion, help store carbon and provide added nutrients that help plants cope with stress.
This is crucial for plants if they are to adapt to climate change. However, these same fungi and other microscopic helpers in the soil are harmed by many kinds of disturbances, including soil compaction from thinning operations and soil warming and drying from some fuel break designs.
Many studies describe methods for protecting and restoring these fungi and healthy soils, and the meaningful benefits of doing so. Assessing and addressing the effects of heavy machinery and treatment designs on these helpers would be needed to successfully anticipate outcomes and achieve forest resiliency. Yet, the environmental analysis for the Landscape Resiliency Plan mentions these fungi (mycorrhizae) only once, in a public comment.
Forest microclimates should also be considered. Microclimates are areas buffered from extremes in temperature, wind, and drying by the shelter the forest provides.
Microclimates protect resources like moisture, and offer important sanctuaries for species during climate change. Logging and thinning can disturb these microclimates, increasing exposure to wind and sun, decreasing moisture, and making it more difficult for trees to thrive.
To successfully anticipate outcomes, the impacts of treatment designs and locations on microclimates, and the associated effects on biodiversity, forest resiliency, and fire behavior must be factored into project planning and monitoring.
However, microclimates are only mentioned in passing in the environmental analysis for this project, and only with respect to shading riparian areas, ignoring the forest needs overall.
New strategies are being implemented. The Balcones Canyonlands Preserve in Austin, Texas, is highly concerned with protecting clean drinking water. People there developed shaded fuel break treatments to protect canopy cover and microclimates. And they are monitoring treatment effects on mycorrhizal fungi and microclimates to enable increasingly responsive management.
Here in Santa Fe, the Ortiz Mountains Open Space project is implementing phased, multi-year treatments that prevent erosion and maintain the level of forest canopy that native birds, pollinators, and forest floor plants need. Interestingly, the same methods converge with science on protecting microclimates and retaining moisture and reducing wildfire risk.
We urge Santa Fe National Forest to consider, and address, more aspects of forest and community resiliency using new tools and integrative approaches like those described above. It is not too late to make this project a success.
Teresa Seamster helps manage family-owned forested land with her husband and is a representative for Sierra Club on the New Mexico Forest and Watershed Health Coordinating Group. Lisa Markovchick is the Southwest Conservation Advocate and Ecologist for WildEarth Guardians. Markovchick is an ecologist with expertise in natural resources management and Southwest ecology.