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Managing our forests: Two sides of the story

Let’s take back our forest

By Sarah Hyden

Who does the Santa Fe National Forest belong to? To all of us! It’s our forest.

Yet, the U.S. Forest Service often acts as if we have no right to be genuinely involved in what happens to our forest, as if it’s their forest.

A thinned area of the Santa Fe National Forest in the Gallinas Watershed. (Courtesy of Kali Goring)

The Forest Service, along with a collaborative called the Greater Santa Fe Fireshed Coalition, is proposing widespread, severe tree-cutting and burning in our local Santa Fe-area forest. Typical Forest Service thinning prescriptions call for the removal of over 90 percent of trees. Much of the National Forest the public currently enjoys for recreation and to experience peace in nature could be made unrecognizable if the Forest Service has its way – it could be turned into a sea of stumps and slash punctuated by very few trees. And when the forest tries to come back to life, the new growth is normally burned off again.

Environmental law requires the Forest Service to fully include the public in the planning of projects in our National Forests, but instead they are simply going through the motions and keeping the public largely out of the process. They analyzed the first two “Fireshed” projects, the Hyde Park Wildland Urban Interface Project and the Pacheco Canyon Forest Resilience Project, with categorical exclusions, the lowest level of analysis meant for routine and non-impactful projects – although these projects are primarily located in Inventoried Roadless Areas that are meant to be highly protected. Clearly, removing the vast majority of trees is impactful.

Bringing in heavy machinery, such as bulldozers, masticators and large trucks, for thinning projects tears up the forest floor, destroys much of the natural forest vegetation, and causes soils to compact and erode. Wildlife habitat becomes disrupted and wildlife killed. Slash, the chopped-up tree trunks and limbs, is often left for years, which can cause bark beetle outbreaks and increases fire danger in the forest. The remaining trees often appear weakened and unhealthy. The forest is turned into a sad wasteland.

A growing number of Santa Fe-area residents is deeply concerned about what the Forest Service has done to our forest and what it’s proposing to do on a much more massive scale going forward. Many people are concerned about the effects on their health of the frequent smoky low-temperature prescribed burns using chemical fire accelerants.

The Forest Service and the Fireshed Coalition often hold public meetings about their plans for our forest. Only the science that supports their thin-and-burn-fuel treatment agenda is presented – even though current research indicates that fuel treatments in our forests are virtually useless for decreasing the cost and effects of wildfire because the likelihood a fire will encounter a forest fuel treatment during the relatively small window of time that it’s effective is very low.

And even though newer research indicates that the primary cause of wildfire is hot and dry weather, not the amount of standing trees in the forest, and that breaking up the tree canopy can make the forest dryer and in some cases more fire prone. And even though an eminent Forest Service fire specialist demonstrated years ago that thinning and fireproofing just 100 feet around structures is all that’s really beneficial for protecting structures.

The Forest Service has also been involved in obstructing concerned citizens’ editorials from being published containing information they feel doesn’t represent the picture they want painted of what they’re doing to our forest. They have called citizens “not factual” for writing about or discussing forest ecology issues from a different scientific perspective than their own. They are in effect saying: Don’t interfere with what we want to do to our forest.

Let’s take back our forest now, before it’s too late. Tell your elected representatives to urge the Forest Service to stop its tree-cutting and prescribed burning program until they do full analysis, an Environmental Impact Statement, first. It’s our right. It’s our forest.

Sarah Hyden is a board member of the Santa Fe Forest Coalition and a forest protection advocate with WildEarth Guardians

Lessons from a fire you likely don’t know about

By James Melonas

The Venado Fire started from a lightning strike on July 20 in the Jemez Mountains west of the village of Jemez Springs and near the Jemez National Recreation Area. As we all remember, we had just endured the driest and most extreme indices of any fire season on record without a major fire.

In a healthy forest, this would be exactly the type of wildfire firefighters would consider managing to mimic the natural fires that historically burned every five to 15 years here — mostly surface fire that cleared out fuels, and benefitted wildlife habitat, forage and watershed health. The Venado Fire started in the middle of the monsoon season, with higher humidity and frequent rainstorms to temper fire behavior, and in a relatively remote area of the National Forest, away from homes and communities. But the forest here was anything but healthy — the area was heavily logged in the early 1900s and fire, the keystone process in our ponderosa forests, was excluded for over a century. The resulting forest was full of stressed, diseased and unnaturally dense stands of trees.

The Venado Fire burned last summer near west of Jemez Springs. (Courtesy of InciWeb)

These unnatural forest conditions allowed the Venado Fire to quickly grow into an intense crown fire that “blew” through Joaquin Canyon, killing essentially every tree and scorching the soil, creating conditions ripe for significant erosion and flooding. At the height of the incident, nearly 300 firefighters were assigned to the 3,000-acre blaze.

And then something remarkable happened — a fire raging so intensely that it was literally creating its own weather, “slammed” into an area that was previously thinned and burned. Within a few hundred feet, the fire dropped to the ground, allowing firefighters the opportunity they needed to fight the fire safely on their terms.

This is not an isolated incident of fuels treatments dramatically changing fire behavior. Last year, the Cajete Fire that burned just south of the Valles Caldera National Preserve and threatened hundreds of homes, was “cut off” after burning into areas previously thinned and burned by fire managers. These are just a few of hundreds of examples from across the West. The science and our real-life experiences in New Mexico are clear — strategic thinning and prescribed burns to return fire to its natural role in our ponderosa pine forests are critical to reducing the risk of wildfire to communities, ensuring firefighter safety, improving wildlife habitat and our watersheds, and protecting all the things we love and depend on from our forests.

The Greater Santa Fe Fireshed Coalition is hosting a screening of “The Era of MegaFires” on November 27 at 7 p.m. at the Jean Cocteau Cinema. “The Era of Megafires” is a 60-minute multi-media presentation that combines the research of Dr. Paul Hessburg (Pacific Northwest Research Station, USDA Forest Service) with the visual storytelling of award-winning film company North 40 Productions.

The movie will be followed by a panel discussion with local experts to talk about the risk of wildfire here in Santa Fe, the benefits and consequences of different types of fires, and what the Santa Fe Fireshed Coalition partners are doing to restore our landscapes and prepare.

Melonas is supervisor of the Santa Fe National Forest