This time of year, a few purple aster and yellow arnica blooms spot the trailsides beneath a dense and diverse array of pine, fir and aspen trees on a path a 15-minute drive from the Plaza at the Black Canyon Campground. Some of the aspens are old enough that their bark has thickened and gnarled. Visit in spring and a hairy woodpecker, one of the indicator species the Forest Service uses to monitor forest health, might emerge from a nest in a hollowed snag; local birders spotted one there this year.

In another month or so, this area is slated to see its trees thinned and piled, the first phase of a planned Forest Service project for 1,800 acres in the Hyde Park area.

"We're not going to broadly or uniformly cut trees down," says Hannah Bergemann, fireshed coordinator for the Santa Fe National Forest. "The plan is to create some heterogeneity. We're not just going to take a broad stroke."

That's not how the plan reads to Sam Hitt, a local activist, farmer, founder of Wild Watershed and one of two birders who surveyed breeding birds in the area this year, spotting the woodpecker as one of almost 70 identified. Since 2005, Hitt has watchdogged this project, which he argues will dramatically reshape an otherwise rare roadless area just minutes from downtown. The National Environmental Policy Act mandates careful environmental study and public involvement on federal projects like this one. But this year, the agency announced plans to move forward without environmental review, citing the Healthy Forest Restoration Act's clause exempting projects from those years-long studies if they are less than 3,000 acres and aim to limit the spread of disease or insect infestations. So Hitt sued, filing a complaint in May and a request for an injunction Aug. 28.

Santa Fe National Forest Service staff have been striving to make more of the forest look like this portion of the watershed, visible from the end of a trail near Hyde Memorial State Park.
Santa Fe National Forest Service staff have been striving to make more of the forest look like this portion of the watershed, visible from the end of a trail near Hyde Memorial State Park.

"When you're taking down 90 percent of trees and every acre is affected by either tree-removal or burning," he says, "it's a major impact and it should be given a hard look at."

The two sides don't even agree on some base-level facts. Bergemann calls it "a pretty low-impact project overall" and says no heavy machinery will be used, aside from offroad vehicles used to haul in crews. But Hitt insists that the mention of tree masticators in the 2017 scoping information from the agency means those machines will soon plow into the roadless area. Asked directly if the project would create roads, Bergemann said no, but Hitt says, "get your tape measure"—anything more than 50 inches wide counts as a road, and off-road vehicles could leave a track that wide. Hitt says there hasn't been enough public participation. The service points to meetings held and comments taken since 2005, and a field trip early last month.

In October, the Forest Service plans to begin thinning and piling small-diameter trees on about 180 acres of Hyde Park Road, while another plan in Pacheco Canyon would burn 500 acres between the Winsor and Rio en Medio trails.

Prescribed burns have become a routine part of the Forest Service's effort to reverse conditions established by a century of wildfire suppression. The Forest Service counts 800 or 900 trees per acre in an area where 30 or 40 would be more appropriate, Bergemann says.

"The trees per acre is more of an indictment of not having fire play its natural role," says James Melonas, forest supervisor. "These trees are these spindly little things because they wouldn't naturally be so densely packed."

A catastrophic wildfire in the area could wipe out access to the national forest and ski basin or compromise the city's watershed, and could affect downstream acequias and communities. The agency says its aim is to preserve the area's wilderness qualities while mitigating the risks of such a fire.

Each season, prescribed fires prompt complaints, often about the smoke and its health effects. Those concerns are mentioned in Hitt's lawsuit, and Ann McCampbell, a physician who advocates for chemically sensitive people like herself, has signed on to it. But the bulk of the legal case—and part of why attorney Thomas Woodbury says he thinks he can win it—argues that the agency inappropriately invoked a categorical exclusion from environmental review required by the National Environmental Policy Act and failed to comply with the Santa Fe National Forest's management plan for protecting old-growth forests. Woodbury, a Montana-based attorney who previously fought cases challenging the same law, called tackling the Pacheco Canyon and Hyde Park projects without a programmatic environmental assessment "shocking."

"The definition of a categorical exclusion project is that it doesn't have any significant cumulative effects," Woodbury says. "In this case, that's silly to say."

The plan is to treat more than 4,300 acres over the two projects to change their risk of wildfire, he says, so "it doesn't make legal sense to me that that's not significant."

One overlooked factor, Hitt says, is a nationwide study published in the Open Forest Science Journal that found a 2 to 7.9 percent chance that an area that's been treated to prevent catastrophic fire will see that fire in the two decades before undergrowth returns. He also points to work at the University of British Columbia on mycorrhizal fungal networks linking tree roots. Those networks transmit biochemical signals that share nutrients, warn about resource shortages and indicate recognition of "kin." A "mother tree" chooses which of the spindly, stunted trees has the best chance of thriving, selecting a successor with precision a human can't replicate.

"This isn't just woo-y Santa Fe stuff," Hitt says. "We have to treat these forests with the kind of respect that takes into account that the whole thing is alive and it knows what it's doing."

A hearing for the case could be scheduled within the next month.