Project aims to prevent catastrophe

By Teresa Seamster, Northern Group Chair

The Sangre de Cristo Mountains behind Santa Fe look green this summer, with more growth and ground cover than usual due to early and heavier-than-average rainstorms. The dry timber and deadfall left by the long and still-present drought is hidden in the new green, but a few weeks of hot, windy weather will quickly dry out the tall weeds and tree stands.

For more than two years, Santa Fe National Forest, the city and county of Santa Fe, Tesuque Pueblo and collaborating groups in the Greater Santa Fe Fireshed Coalition, have strategized and reached out to the public with a growing sense of urgency on how to prevent an unnaturally high-intensity fire in this potential tinderbox. There are many steps that forest professionals and the public agree need to be taken, and there are others where opinions are divided.

The Santa Fe Mountains Landscape Project is the proposed action the fireshed coalition is working on “to improve the resilience of a priority landscape to future disturbances such as high-severity wildfire, drought, and insect outbreaks by restoring forest structure and composition.”

According to the proposal, to increase the resilience of the forests, watersheds, and communities of the Greater Santa Fe Fireshed, there is a need to:

  • Move forests and woodlands (including ponderosa pine, dry mixed conifer, aspen, and piñon-juniper) in the project area toward their characteristic species composition, structure and spatial patterns to improve ecological function;
  • Reduce the risk for high-severity wildfire; create safe, defensible zones for firefighters in areas of continuous fuels and near valued resources that are at risk, and avoid negative post-fire impacts;
  • Improve the diversity and quality of habitat for wildlife; and
  • Improve soil and watershed conditions.

Today, the public is used to seeing densely forested slopes, with 500 to 1,000 or more trees per acre in some areas, and fewer grassy meadows and valleys. The proposed thinning and burning of selected areas in the 50,000-acre mountain project to 50-100 trees per acre is a concern for many residents, as they have seen thinning projects that have produced unsatisfactory results.

The featured image at the top of this post is the ‘after’ picture. This photo shows the site visit in 2017. Compare the same marked tree.

This spring, the Santa Fe Board of County Commissioners looked closely at the project and the years of work that have gone into identifying its need and purpose. Commissioners listened to public concerns and forestry staff presentations. The wording of their subsequent March resolution falls short of asking the Santa Fe National Forest to conduct an Environmental Impact Study but requests a full National Environmental Policy Act  to ensure the Santa Fe mountains are not damaged ecologically or altered to a condition the public opposes.

Here’s the text:

Now, therefore, be it resolved that the Board of County Commissioners of Santa Fe County, hereby supports the ongoing NEPA analysis process for the Santa Fe Mountains Landscape Resiliency Project with full public involvement to comprehensively and objectively assess environmental impacts incorporating a broad range of forest and fire ecology research, and to evaluate all reasonable alternatives before further actions are taken in the Fireshed.

Local conservation groups, including Northern New Mexico Group of Sierra Club, Defenders of Wildlife and WildEarth Guardians were encouraged to propose a Santa Fe Conservation Alternative. The SFC Alternative has been submitted to the Santa Fe National Forest and contains several measures starting with these recommendations:

  1. Educate the public, especially those who live near the forest, to make fireproofing changes on their properties and become “Firewise Communities,” and
  2. Inform residents about emergency and wildfire preparedness. These are two critical areas the National Forest and fireshed coalition have been extensively involved in the past few years.

The conservation alternative also makes additional recommendations:

  • Require a site-specific plan for each project within the SFMLRP that strategically targets fire prone areas to treat, creates buffered boundary areas to protect property and access roads, and createssafety zones to protect lives;
  • Require that riparian areas and critical wildlife habitat receive additional restoration monitoring and mitigation procedures developed in collaboration with the Department of Game and Fish;
  • Encourage public input regarding preservation of places, landscapes, cultural sites and landmarks of local significance;
  • Restore treated streamside areas, replant native vegetation, return beavers to appropriate areas and decommission non-essential roads.

To protect areas with acres of smaller trees, the conservation alternative recommends thinning up to 9 inches diameter instead of up to 24 inches, and to leave a higher amount of understory to maintain cover and forage for wildlife. To avoid attracting beetle infestation and spread, no slash larger than 3 inches (chip size) should be left on the ground during dry season. To evaluate the success of project treatment areas, it recommends test plots to monitor progress and type of post-fire re-vegetation and return of species.

The Santa Fe National Forest Preferred Alternative has been completed and is available to the public. Residents are encouraged to read the provisions carefully and make suggestions that they feel will ensure forest resiliency and improve the project.

The mountains behind Santa Fe are the watershed and environment that sustains the city and surrounding communities today. We are all deeply invested in the success of this project.

For more information:

Forest Service – Santa Fe Mountains Landscape Resiliency Project
Wild Earth Guardians – Santa Fe Conservation Alternative

You can send comments to the Forest Service at:
comments-southwestern-santafe@fs.fed.us with “Santa Fe Mountains Landscape Resiliency Project” in the subject line.

Project aims to prevent catastrophe