Santa Fe County commissioners this week pressed US Forest Service officials about the use of prescribed burns and the agency’s Santa Fe Mountains Landscape Resiliency Project, saying federal officials are ignoring climate change, economic impacts and public concerns.
Although the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire is now 72% contained, much of the damage is done. Ripping through 336,000 acres of land, it’s left more than 350 homes destroyed. Because it started as a result of a prescribed burn, the Forest Service’s finding that a project to regularly burn down roughly 40,000 acres of the Santa Fe National Forest would have no immediate impact left commissioners perturbed.
District 4 Commissioner and board Chair Anna Hamilton said at Tuesday’s board meeting that the finding is “at this point, edging toward the laughable side.” Forest conditions are not what they were when the project first came into being, she said.
“With climate change…those conditions are not likely to exist again,” Hamilton, who has a PhD in ecology, said. “It seems to me to be imperative that the Forest Service take that into consideration in the revision of the plan.”
The Forest Service received 40 objections during its 45-day comment period for the project aimed at “restoring forest structure and composition and reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfire.” Of those, only 12 are expected to get a formal response. The other 28, according to the agency’s fireshed coordinator Jacob Key, lacked standing or were tossed because the objector did not comment during previous periods.
Key told commissioners the majority of objections were against forest thinning and burning, citing concerns for wildlife impact, vegetation and soil effects. Most of them also called for an environmental impact statement.
Debbie Cress, Santa Fe National Forest supervisor, told commissioners the agency is undergoing a national review of its burn plan process and considering whether the science used to inform those plans is most current in the face of climate change. The results are expected to come in the next two weeks.
Cress expects changes to how burn plans are written, but as of now, the Forest Service is reviewing the objections it received to the resiliency project and will reexamine the finding of no immediate impact. She told commissioners that if she and other agency officials can’t confirm the finding, there are two options: Move forward with an environmental impact statement or revise the project.
“Either one of those opportunities is going to delay an opportunity to do any work in the Santa Fe mountains,” Cress said. “Quite frankly, our forests are very vulnerable right now and doing nothing is a risk as well.”
As for reforestation, officials are looking at how to stabilize areas with the most damaged soils, through seeding and mulching, in order to start planting more trees. Many of the locations are on slopes so steep that it makes the effort difficult, according to Cress. So while improvements can be made, the forest itself will look very different, she said.
“In the face of climate change, there’s deep concern, especially when we talk about replanting trees, because a lot of these trees have died in the places that they used to be because there isn’t an environment to support them anymore,” she said. “So that’s part of the science that we work on to think about the forest resiliency—what species belong out there now that may be different or may be at a different elevation than they were before.”
For now, the plan still calls for vegetation thinning and prescribed fire treatments to reduce stand density and increase forest diversity. However, District 2 Commissioner Anna Hansen said forestry officials shouldn’t expect the board or the public to go away.
“This is just the beginning; not the end,” she said. “We need real change in the Santa Fe Mountain Resiliency Landscape Project to believe in it, because at the moment nobody believes in it and nobody trusts you.”