Crews have begun thinning trees on the final 133 acres of a 1,100-acre project near the La Cueva community in the Pecos and Las Vegas Ranger District of the Santa Fe National Forest. This project to create a shaded fuel break in a vulnerable area was approved in 2005 based on input from the community and analysis under the National Environmental Policy Act.

Today, 12 years later, Block E near N.M. 50 and County Road 63-A is the last area to be treated under the La Cueva Fuel Break project. Our state partners at the New Mexico State Forestry Division are assisting with implementation as part of their mission to protect private property from catastrophic wildfire and promote healthy, sustainable forests and watersheds for the benefit of all New Mexicans.

The La Cueva project uses a science-based framework to reduce the density of the forest to its historic (i.e., prior to human impacts) level. The outcome — which has been demonstrated over and over again on projects across the Southwest — will be improved plant and animal habitats, healthier trees that can better withstand insects, disease and climate change, and, most importantly, a reduced risk of large-scale, high-intensity wildfire spreading to or from La Cueva, Dalton Canyon and the Santa Fe Municipal Watershed.

We understand and appreciate the passion many members of the La Cueva community have for this particular part of the Santa Fe National Forest, and we welcome their input. In addition to extensive public engagement during the National Environmental Policy Act process, we have continued to work with the neighbors, people both for and against the project, to make changes that meet their concerns while still following the well-established science on managing fire-adapted ecosystems. After a public meeting in January, for example, we took another look at the treatment plan and determined that we could leave more trees in woodland areas and still meet project objectives.

The treatment plan is not simply about the number of trees that are removed. The primary purpose of the La Cueva Fuel Break project is to reduce the ladder fuels that feed crown fires and make sure that the main access road into the residences and the rest of the forest is safe for both firefighters who need to get into the area and residents who need to get out in the event of a fire emergency.

An additional benefit will be a more resilient landscape with healthier trees. Smaller, deformed and diseased trees have been targeted for hand thinning. Large, healthy ponderosa pines will not be cut. The end result will be a natural mix of species with clusters of trees and open spaces in between.

Wildlife biologists have confirmed that wildlife habitat will be improved by thinning Block E. Archaeologists have confirmed that important archaeological sites will not be damaged by thinning Block E. Entomologists have confirmed that thinning Block E will not increase the likelihood of bark beetle attack. In short, the end result will be a more resilient, healthier forest and a more fire-wise community.

Steve Romero is the Santa Fe National Forest Pecos/Las Vegas District ranger.

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