What does it mean for the forests around Santa Fe to be healthy and resilient to climate change, drought, pests and fire, and what can be done to prepare for the likelihood that these threats will become more pressing in the future?

These are the questions that the Santa Fe National Forest Service aims to address with the proposed Santa Fe Mountains Landscape Resiliency Project, presented to City Council by Forest Service Supervisor James Melonas this week. The project calls for prescribed burns and riparian restoration projects across 50,000 acres of national forest in the mountains northeast and southeast of Santa Fe.

The project is already controversial.

At the City Council meeting Wednesday,  Melonas drew some pointed questions from Councilor Carol Romero-Wirth about how the agency is integrating climate change science into its analysis. Melonas responded that climate change resilience and changing conditions are the reasons forest managers are considering the project. The service has even worked with researchers at the University of New Mexico to determine how prescribed burns will impact the net amount of carbon dioxide captured or released within various forest conditions, he says.

Forest Service Supervisor James Melonas explains proposed resiliency project.
Forest Service Supervisor James Melonas explains proposed resiliency project. | Leah Cantor

Several community members in attendance tell SFR they have serious concerns about prescribed burns in wilderness areas without existing roads that may cause the disturbance of wildlife habitats, and the public health impacts of smoke.

"I do not think that prescribed burns are the best way to protect property or wilderness from unplanned forest fires," says Santa Fe resident Karen Weber. "A project of this size calls for the Forest Service … to do an environmental impact statement, just doing an assessment is not enough."

Yet the Forest Service contends that prescribed burns are necessary for restoring forests to health. Here's why.

"We live in ponderosa pine and mixed conifer forests that are adapted to fire," says Santa Fe National Forest Fuels Program Manager Dennis Carril. "In pre-suppression times, there were fires every seven to 10 years. But the current condition is that we haven't had regular fires in 140 years."

These conditions have resulted in much denser forests and more severe wildfires. As droughts increase, Carril says fires are burning hotter than what is historically considered normal. Prescribed burns aim to mimic historical fire conditions that burned at much lower temperatures, clearing out the underbrush and ground level of vegetation while leaving the crowns of trees healthy and intact. These fires did not kill most healthy trees, but simply burned off their lower branches—and some species of plants even need fire to germinate seed, says Carril. In contrast, the current density of growth in forests that have not seen fire in more than a century promote devastating wildfires that can destroy everything in their path.

In overcrowded forests, Carril explains, trees must compete for water and nutrients and are unable to grow very large, all factors that make them much more susceptible to disease, pests and drought conditions.

"We are talking about a time frame of implementing this work over a time frame of 10 to 15 years," Fireshed Coordinator Hannah Bergemann tells SFR by phone, explaining how the project will use a combination of hand and mechanical thinning with carefully controlled use of fire to reduce overgrowth in the forest. "One of the big public misconceptions is that it is gonna happen all at once. It's not."

The Forest Service has opened the initial scoping process to a 30-day comment period. Bergemann says concerns voiced by the pubic during this period will be taken into account during a year-long environmental impact analysis that will assess the proposed methods in comparison to alternatives and potential impacts on wildlife habitats, public health, cultural and historical sites, and water and air quality. If the analysis identifies significant risks or negative impacts, they will be addressed in a forthcoming environmental impact statement, but Bergemann says the service will do its best to mitigate negative impacts in the plan so that the need for an EIS will not be met. At each step along the way, says Bergemann, the public will have the opportunity to get involved.

Initial comments will be accepted online until July 10, 2019. Bergemann says that a useful comment is one citing specific areas of concern, rather than general approval or disapproval of the project.

Santa Fe Mountains Landscape Resiliency Project Public Meetings

4:30-7 pm Monday June 24. Free. Santa Fe National Forest Supervisor's Office, 11 Forest Lane.

9:30 am-noon Saturday June 29. Free. Hondo Fire Station 2, 645 Old Las Vegas Hwy.