Copyright © 2021 Albuquerque Journal
A proposed wildfire mitigation and restoration project within the Santa Fe National Forest in the southern end of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains could have the same beneficial effects as a similar program within the Santa Fe Municipal Watershed.
The sweeping Santa Fe Mountain Landscape Resiliency Project is expected to last 10-15 years, covering 50,566 acres and costing as much as $33 million, said Julie Anne Overton, a spokeswoman with the U.S. Forest Service. Funds are expected to come from federal, state, and possibly local partners and cooperators.
A recently completed draft environmental assessment is online at fs.usda.gov/project/?project=55088 and the public has until Oct. 26 to submit comments to Santa Fe National Forest officials. Additionally, two virtual public hearings will be held prior to then, with dates and times announced on the website.
The assessment shows that, without any measures, “the risk of high-severity and high-intensity fire would continue to increase, threatening forests and the ecosystem services they provide, as well as infrastructure in the wildland urban interface.”
The work calls for non-commercial, hand-thinning of about 18,000 steep, mountainous acres before prescribed burning could be used to further reduce dangerous fuel loads, Overton said.
According to an USDA fact sheet, the goals of the project would be to:
• Improve the condition of forest vegetation, increasing species and structural diversity, and restoring the forest to a more fire-adapted species composition and structure;
• Maintain and expand old-growth habitat;
• Reduce fuel loads, wildfire behavior and potential damage to important values from high-intensity wildfire;
• Increase the forest’s resiliency to climate change;
• Improve the diversity, health and resilience of wildlife habitat, including for the Mexican spotted owl;
• Protect water sources for the City of Santa Fe and nearby communities from high-severity wildfire;
• Restore riparian vegetation and enhance watershed condition;
• Reduce air quality impacts from high-severity wildfire; and
• Enhance views in the project area by creating forest openings.
This would be accomplished by thinning trees of 16 inches in diameter at breast height, prescribed burning of up to 38,000 acres, restoration of 680 riparian acres that is habitat to native fish and plants, including conifers, removal of non-native invasive plant species and planting native trees.
The Greater Santa Fe Fireshed Coalition, formed in 2015-16 with numerous local stakeholders, has helped keep the watershed project on course and had significant input into the assessment.
“Since then, the coalition of partners have talked about how the work that has happened in the municipal watershed has been really critical to the resiliency of the community because of the water supply,” said Eytan Krasilovsky, deputy director of the Forest Stewards Guild. “We identified the need for a project like this from the beginning, six years ago. That was a founding impetus to broaden the good work that was already done and that was … happening in the watershed.”
Taking measures now to prevent catastrophic forest fires in the future makes sense economically, Krasilovsky said.
“There are other examples where watersheds that have not had that treatment and have had high-intensity fires face costs of tens of millions to fix things, and you don’t get back what you’ve had before,” he said.
According to a 2021 Earth Economics report commissioned by the Santa Fe National Forest, the proposal is estimated to generate “between $1.44 and $1.67 in benefits for every dollar invested in treatment.”
Most of the benefits would directly benefit the Santa Fe community via “avoided air quality impacts, recreational losses, damages to structures and source water impacts,” the report showed. “The remaining benefits accrue to public agencies at the state and national level or to the global community (in the case of avoided carbon emissions).”
Other reports show the rate of return as even higher, with a Forest Service Guild report showing the return on investment at 9-1.
Another stakeholder and coalition member, Glorieta Camps, has done similar mitigation work on its 2,400 acres near Pecos, but a fire in the Santa Fe National Forest would jeopardize their holdings.
“From our standpoint, a catastrophic wildfire puts our entire property at risk,” said Jon Malvig, Glorieta Camps’ director of risk management and human resources. “The amount of money to lower that risk, that’s dollars that are well spent. You could think of it as an insurance investment.”
Both the county and the city of Santa Fe are coalition members, as are Tesuque Pueblo and the Nature Conservancy.
The risks of not acting have been on display in the tragic fires in and near Los Alamos, as well as the recent one along the popular Rio en Medio hiking trail, Krasilovsky said.
“There is an urgency to act,” he said. “I feel like this analysis has looked at fire’s impacts and recommends a good course of action.”