The mountains in the Santa Fe National Forest as seen from Santa Fe Community College in March 2023. (Photo by Megan Taros for Source NM)
The U.S. Forest Service wants to burn tens of thousands of acres over the next decade in the Santa Fe National Forest to decrease the severity of future wildfires. Prescribed burns have escaped there in the past, and the forest sits close to where some of New Mexico’s most massive wildfires occurred.
One of those, the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire was caused by the National Forest Service in 2022. Due to new safety rules around prescribed burns, the federal agency says they have more clear guidelines, and insist they don’t want a repeat of the past.
Not everyone has as much faith in them.
Under the Santa Fe Mountains Landscape Resiliency Project, the U.S. Forest Service would burn 38,000 acres, thin 18,000 acres and conduct riparian restoration in 680 acres over the next 10 years. Maintenance burning would keep going every five to 10 years.
Matthew Hurteau is a fire ecologist and University of New Mexico professor with expertise on the Santa Fe watershed. He said this project is necessary to keep the Santa Fe National Forest healthy and prevent out-of-control wildfires, especially amid climate change.
“The atmosphere is getting warmer and drier, and so it basically acts as a giant sponge sucking water out of the ecosystem,” he said. “And the less water you have stored in the ecosystem, the more flammable that becomes.”
Other environmental advocates don’t feel the same.
Sarah Hyden lives on the edge of Santa Fe National Forest and has helped lead a coalition of environmental advocacy groups and scientists in objecting to the project. She has also organized meetings so the Forest Service can hear public concerns about their plans, many of which revolve around potential dangers that could emerge.
She said the project’s excessive burning and thinning measures could have catastrophic consequences, both for the environment and the health of the people living near the forest.
“Fire isn’t a bad thing. It’s a natural part of forest ecology,” she said. “But when you get so much and you burn out communities and people’s homes and disrupt their lives and their acequias, it’s really damaging.”
Hyden said she’s worried about the potential of this large federal forest service project leading to escaped burns. That’s how the U.S. Forest Service started the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon that grew out of control and burned more than 341,000 acres.
“They don’t seem to be learning from the past, and they don’t seem to be willing to,” Hyden said.
New burn rules
The Forest Service started releasing plans about the project around 2019, before the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire, which temporarily put it on pause. Upon resuming last year, Hyden said the federal agency isn’t learning from their errors.
Jacob Key, U.S. Forest Service fireshed coordinator, said the federal government has taken steps to learn from the mistake and wants to prevent another record setting fire in New Mexico.
The Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon fire caused a halt on all U.S. Forest Service prescribed burns around the country for 90 days. Then, the Forest Service released a review of its burn practices and revised some of the standards.
Key said some of the significant changes require burn authorizations to be approved within a 24-hour period, monitoring fires more regularly and having contingency resources closer to project areas to handle fires getting out of control.
The burn plans for the Santa Fe National Forest project would have to take those new requirements into account. Each burn project would get its own plan. It’s unclear how many more prescribed burns are necessary under the plan, Key said.
“There’s a big understanding that we need to do more, and these are the steps that we’re trying to take to do more,” he said.
Hyden said the Forest Service still needs more personnel, equipment and funding to get things done correctly. She’s concerned about their lack of capacity to change, even under the new requirements.
“There’s nothing genuine that has been significantly improved, just a new set of procedures,” she said. “And that’s not like that’s nothing, but it’s not nearly enough.”
A warming globe
Hurteau said one of the reasons the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire got so bad was because there’s a history of the U.S. Forest Service not allowing prescribed burns that can lead mitigation efforts that prevent larger fires from getting out of control.
“I think it’s absolutely delusional to think we can live in a world in the southwest without wildfire,” Hurteau said.
Unlike the opinion from local residents like Hyden, Hurteau said not enacting this project amid climate change will lead to more disastrous wildfires. He said the project actually doesn’t go far enough and should include more thinning and burning to treat the forest.
“I think that most people don’t understand how much more risk we’re going to face in these landscapes with additional warming in the atmosphere,” Hurteau said. “And we’re committed to it. It’s happening. Even if we shut off fossil fuel combustion globally tomorrow, we’re going to continue to warm.”
Extreme weather conditions were major factors in the intensity of the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire. The U.S. Forest Service lit the prescribed burns that led to the fires combining in high winds and low humidities.
In the last five decades, wildfire season in western states has increased by over two months in length, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
There have been multiple opportunities for the public to object to the Santa Fe project, though the objection periods have since closed. The most recent objection period ended in January. Dozens have already questioned how this will make the forest healthier.
Lisa Markovchick is the southwestern ecologist and conservation advocate at WildEarth Guardians. She joined Hyden to submit an in-depth objection to the project.
Markovchick said the Forest Service needs to consider more alternative methods, including those that’ll help the environment maintain moisture, hold carbon and provide shade. Markovchick said to have cooler, wetter environments, there are “more ways to do that than just yanking out trees.”
She said another issue with this plan is that it’s conditions-based, which means specific treatment plans and areas won’t be determined until the Forest Service knows the current on-the-ground conditions.
Markovchick and Hyden requested an extra research step in their objection — an environmental impact statement. Others asked for this, too, including the Santa Fe County Commission.
An impact statement would show the consequences the project would have that significantly affect the human environment — which Forest Service officials have said the plan doesn’t have.
Key said it’s unlikely an environmental impact statement will be done. He said officials at the various federal agency branches agree that the Forest Service analyzed everything correctly.
The regional Forest Service office is reviewing concerns until April 10 and could change project details later based on the findings. Key said the Forest Service hopes to get the OK in May to get the project going.
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