New Mexico’s new “shared stewardship” agreement with the U.S. Forest Service seeks to “elevate and formalize” state and federal collaboration on forest policy (“State, Forest Service team up on stewardship,” Nov. 15). This is concerning because current state and federal policies each strongly support the highly questionable practice of deliberate, extensive forest burning.
We should be strenuously reevaluating our burning policy instead of making new commitments to work with the leading agency dedicated to aggressive burning. The Forest Service has been setting fires across several million acres each year, and it seeks to burn much more. In the spirit of President Donald Trump’s Executive Order 13855, Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen has deemed that about 80 million acres of national forest are in critical need of cutting and burning. That is more than half the forested area of the national forest system.
Deliberate burning across millions of acres may seem unthinkable to some, but it is happening. The Forest Service and its allied proponents of “landscape scale prescribed burning” have convinced many political leaders that any drawbacks to burning, such as adverse health effects from smoke, are insignificant relative to the benefits. The most commonly suggested benefit is reducing the risk of “catastrophic fire.”
Such risk of catastrophic fire is neither defined nor quantified by the Forest Service, but in the name of preventing it, we are being asked to resignedly live with more smoke from deliberately set fires than ever before. It is unclear what we gain from this sacrifice, yet it is clear that smoke from burns erodes respiratory and cardiovascular function as well as our planet’s capacity to stay cool. And there is more to lose; the most costly fire in New Mexico history, the Cerro Grande Fire, was caused by a deliberate National Park Service burn gone awry.
The Forest Service has proposed to burn up to 67 square miles of forest adjacent to Santa Fe. This area, which is larger than the city itself, is slated to be the centerpiece of the largest burn project ever for the Sangre de Cristo Mountains near Santa Fe. Nevertheless, arguably illegally, the Forest Service has declined to begin preparing an environmental impact statement for its proposal. In the past, it has met its obligations to prepare environmental impact statements for much smaller and less impactful projects in the same region.
Public concern is naturally high, but the Forest Service has turned the other way. After officially proposing the Santa Fe project in June, the Forest Service received several thousand public comments submitted during its comment period. By mid-July, it had released online to the public only 58 of the comments received. The vast majority of these 58 comments condemned the burning and cutting of our forests and/or insisted that at least an environmental impact statement be prepared before proceeding.
Near the end of July, the 58 comments were suddenly withdrawn from public access. Despite receiving multiple pleas, and contrary to past policy, the Forest Service has since kept all the comments it received under wraps. Now it says it will not in the foreseeable future have the staffing to release the comments.
The Forest Service’s lack of accountability to the public and its penchant for accelerated burning of our forests will make it a challenging partner with which to responsibly share stewardship. A meaningful first step for the state under its new agreement would be to insist on an environmental impact statement for the Santa Fe proposal. An equally important step would be to request the prompt release of the withheld public comments.
Jonathan Glass lives in Santa Fe.