Wrong direction for forest burning policy

the cover of a current Santa Fe National Forest plan revision document

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.

(7) comments

Richard Reinders

They don't burn 90% they clean up ladder fuels laying on the ground and thin 10 to 30% depending on the density. California has had 3 years of uncontrollable fires burning homes ,businesses, and towns. If you don't like the policies here go back to the west coast and see if you like the smoke there any better and ask the people who lost homes and businesses if they like the lack of forest management.

Sarah Hyden

Richard, where have you ever seen a USFS prescription for the eastside Santa Fe National Forest that calls for 10-30% of trees to be removed? I would love to see it. Please identify the project. Every thinning prescription on the eastside SFNF I have seen calls for removal of over 90% of trees. I did a FOIA request to find any prescriptions in the Espanola and Pecos/Las Vegas Ranger Districts that called for less than 90% of trees to be removed, and I received none.

Richard Reinders

Sarah even a 90% controlled burn is better then 100% out of controlled burn. I have personally implemented a forest program on our ranch in Colorado and they never required I thin more then 30% . I also reclaimed a ranch that had an uncontrolled burn take 90% of the trees and the only ones that didn't burn were thinned, so I have personal experience. You can't say what is happening in California is working with uncontrolled fires then mud slides. As I have always said New Mexico isn't for everyone, don't change what is and has worked for 100's of years.

Maxwell Vertical

Systematic burning is an essential disturbance required to sustain healthy forests. Go visit a burn area a couple years after and you’ll see the healthy next generation of forest starting to rise. Will the author please cite his credentials on this subject?

Sarah Hyden

John, we all know that forests will burn, and yes fire has a natural and important place in forest ecology. But forests can and will burn without humans causing it in a widespread way. A mixed intensity fire regime is natural and beneficial for our forests and we can allow fires to burn when safe, and protect homes and other important infrastructure by focusing on the 100 feet around the values (as recommended by former USFS physical scientist Jack Cohen). There certainly may be a place and need for some limited and strategic prescribed burning, but the idea that the Forest Service burns huge swathes of forest and then repeats it every several years does not seem to be working, or at least needs to be re-examined in the light of newer research. They seem rather entrenched in an old science paradigm.

When the forest is burned so repeatedly the understory doesn't return and the forest becomes a sterilized ecosystem. We see this in the Santa Fe National Forest and it's very sad. All this needs to be considered and that would be the purpose and value of an Environmental Impact Statement. I hope this can be agreed upon by everyone involved and supported by all. It's time for our State representatives to stand up for our forests and for pubic health.

Sarah Hyden

The Forest Service needs to strongly question their current forest management practices, along with the State of New Mexico. They need to do a full ecological cost/benefit analysis before continuing with their entire program of intensive thinning (normally 90% of trees are removed in thinned forest in the Santa Fe area), and burning. They need to consider whether all this burning is just too impactful on human health -- with science and not with aphorisms like "you either breathe the smoke through prescribed burns or wildfire". That is not proven and very likely not true.

And we can't go by what is happening in California, as the primary cause of their forest fire problems is a very poorly maintained and aging electrical grid. The Camp Fire in Paradise California occurred in a highly thinned and cleared area. It made no difference.

An Environmental Impact Statement must be done for the Santa Fe Mountains Landscape Resiliency Project utilizing a full range of available science and genuinely including the public in the process. That includes posting public project comments.

Richard Reinders

Great lets follow a California model that burns homes and forest down to the ground annually

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