Guest Post: Let the Santa Fe National Forest Heal

Photo of the Santa Fe watershed that was thinned in the early 1990’s and subsequently had prescribed fire applied twice. According to Sarah Hyden, you can see from the photo that the understory has not been allowed to return except for a few grasses, and the ecosystem does not appear to be healthy at all. Photo by Dee Blanco

The following guest post was written by Sarah Hyden.  Sarah is the editor of a new website in development, focused on protection of the Santa Fe National Forest called The Forest Advocate. Sarah describes herself as “one of a growing number of citizen advocates deeply concerned about the severity of fuel treatments in our national forests and the very bad ecological effects of such treatments.” – mk

A transformation is taking place in our forest.

It’s changing by the year as the climate becomes warmer and dryer. Existing vegetation in many areas is becoming more marginal. Those of us who live by and with the forest can see it happening. Some years we wonder if the trees will even make it, and then the rains come and they look healthy again. But they don’t seem to be able to tolerate even relatively small impacts.

The forest is resilient in its own way when left free of human interventions. It’s evolving into the healthiest forest possible given current conditions, even if it doesn’t always look that way to us after natural forest processes such as wildfire and bark beetle outbreaks. There will likely be major shifts in vegetation types.

It appears to be difficult, or even impossible for our forest to recover ecological balance and function after fuel treatment projects — extensive thinning followed by periodic prescribed burns. We can see this in the Santa Fe watershed which was thinned and first burned two decades ago. Many treated areas still look like a forest wasteland, not functional forest.

Thinning prescriptions normally call for the vast majority of trees to be removed from large areas of forest. This can involve heavy machinery, damage to trees left behind both above the soil and below, and roads built or improved out in the forest which can cause erosion and wildlife fragmentation. These roads carry the impacts of the public further out into the forest — including increased fire risk. Thinning slash creates increased fire and insect outbreak risk.

Existing research from the US Forest Service and its partners estimates that our local forest historically burned every 5 to 15 years, and prescribed fire regimens often follow that general framework. Newer studies by independent researchers estimate that fire came to our forest much less frequently — one study (W. Baker, 2017) estimates it came at an average of every 55 years for dry mixed conifer and ponderosa pine in the Santa Fe watershed. The too-frequent prescribed fire is not allowing a healthy understory to return, and along with too-intensive thinning, is in many cases leaving our forests too open, barren, dry and ecologically brittle. And sometimes prescribed fire actually causes fires, such as the Cerro Grande Fire.

There have been many detrimental human impacts to our forest ecosystem over the years — logging, livestock grazing, off-road vehicle use, mining, road-building, excessive fire suppression, and human caused fires. The forest needs to heal. Another massive intervention in the form of widespread thinning and prescribed fire is just another man-made solution to a man-made problem. Is it really going to work this time?

The forest has its own intelligence. It can heal itself, in time, likely much better than any treatment we humans can apply. Natural fires in our forest of all intensities help the forest to renew itself and promote biodiversity.

We know how to protect our homes in the wildland/urban interface — fireproof structures and land 100 feet surrounding homes. This has been proven, including by US Forest Service researcher Jack Cohen.

There are careful forest restoration projects we can undertake — to de-commission roads, restore riparian areas, build earthen dams to reduce flooding risk and to re-introduce beavers. Some very limited and light-handed thinning and burning may be needed, but only for strategic and site-specific reasons. This requires open-minded utilization of newer forest and fire ecology research. It also requires new local research that is not based on the assumption that widespread thinning and burning are necessarily a benefit in the cost/benefit analysis. And it requires just slowing down the process.

It’s time to embrace a new paradigm for the forest. Instead of imposing the framework of our limited ecological understanding and perspective onto the forest, let’s be allies of the forest, to help support its inevitable transformation. Let’s respect and honor life. First do no harm.

11 thoughts on “Guest Post: Let the Santa Fe National Forest Heal”

  1. I don’t know much about the forests around Santa Fe. But there a few areas mentioned in this post I take exception with.
    The first idea mentioned a couple of times is that the “vast majority of trees are removed” in thinning projects. Most of the thinning I have seen, including those on the eastside of the cascades, did not take the vast majority of trees. This is true even though these sales where not only for forest health but also for timber production. Most of these thinning look like natural healthy forest in a few years. (And in IMHO much better than before thinning took place.)
    Also mentioned was the damaged to soils that take place during logging operations. Logging operations these days are required to, and experienced in maintaining a minimum of soil disturbance. Most often skid roads and other logging roads are temporary and are decommissioned very carefully to ensure minimal impact.
    As far a letting the forest heal on it own, it does have its place. But after over 25 years of letting majority of our federal forests land alone the results have been mixed. The amount of forests we have lost to fire, (and disease) in the last 25 has been very detrimental to the conservative of our remaining old growth forest environments. I like to think we have learned that active management is appropriate in much of the forests.
    Also we should not forget the importance of the production of wood resources and healthy a wood products industry as partners in, and facilitators of, forest health projects. They can get the needed work done. (I also can’t resist mentioning the importance of a healthy wood products industry to not only the environmental, social, and economic health of our rural communities but our nation).
    I appreciate Sara Hyden efforts to help keep our forests healthy . I just hope she doesn’t exaggerate the facts and keeps an open mind, and like all of us, tries to keep on observing and learning from our forests.

    • Hi Bob,

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

      I have yet to see a USFS thinning prescription for the eastside SFNF that calls for the removal of less than 90% of total trees. Of course the majority of the trees they remove are smaller trees, but they also remove very large trees up to 24″, which are about as big as trees in this area tend to grow. It leaves a very barren landscape that often does not seem to recover from the impacts of the thinning.

      Then the subsequent prescribed fire is applied way too frequently and does not allow for the understory to return. It seems once the USFS start treating a project area, it is never allowed to return to any kind of natural state. It is natural for forest in this area to have understory and necessary for wildlife habitat.

      I am doing my best to be accurate, and surely others will see the situation here differently. But many in the Santa Fe area are deeply concerned about what is being done to our forest. The USFS indicates that they do not want to do an EIS for the Santa Fe Mountains Project. Almost every scoping comment for the Santa Fe Mountains Project urged the USFS to do an EIS because of the serious issues with projects over the past decades, and the lack of ecological recovery. Also concerns with the public health impacts of so much prescribed burn smoke. The vast majority of the comments either adamantly oppose the project or have such major concerns that the project really needs to be reconsidered.

      All the projects around here are done in a very similar manner. I have yet to see one that has resulted in improvements in the health of the ecosystem, in fact very much the opposite.

      • Hi Sarah, would it be possible to be more specific about your claims? It’s hard for us to draw a picture and relate it to other areas we live in and observe. I also think that you have philosophical statements mixed in and many of us derive our philosophies from what we observe. So unless you are more specific we can’t understand where you get your philosophy from.
        1. “Those of us who live by and with the forest can see it happening. Some years we wonder if the trees will even make it, and then the rains come and they look healthy again. But they don’t seem to be able to tolerate even relatively small impacts.” What specifically did you observe, what species, where? What do you mean by “relatively small impacts”?
        2. “The forest is resilient in its own way when left free of human interventions. ” I guess you mean “in its own way, possible not forested, so if you leave it alone the best thing happens” best to whom ? tree species? animals that live in them? Is the “forest” an entity? If it becomes a shrubland or grassland instead, is that still “a resilient forest”?
        3. “ecological balance and function after fuel treatment projects — extensive thinning followed by periodic prescribed burns. ” Scientifically, there is no such thing as “ecological balance” so.. what specific ecological functions are you talking about that haven’t recovered?
        4. “Thinning prescriptions normally call for the vast majority of trees to be removed from large areas of forest.” I haven’t observed this to be true.. can you point to a specific prescription in a specific area?
        5. “Thinning slash creates increased fire and insect outbreak risk.” Not whern they are burned.. which is part of prescriptions I’ve seen. Have you seen thinning slash not treated? Where?
        6. “The too-frequent prescribed fire is not allowing a healthy understory to return, and along with too-intensive thinning, is in many cases leaving our forests too open, barren, dry and ecologically brittle.” What do you mean by “healthy” and “ecologically brittle”? Too open for what?
        7.”The forest has its own intelligence. It can heal itself, in time, likely much better than any treatment we humans can apply. Natural fires in our forest of all intensities help the forest to renew itself and promote biodiversity.” What is a natural fire? Not human ignited? Many TSW folks from Colorado see quite the opposite when we drive by the Hayman Fire.

        8. “We know how to protect our homes in the wildland/urban interface — fireproof structures and land 100 feet surrounding homes” As we’ve talked about many times on TSW, the exercise of quickly evacuating humans and animals is not a good thing, so letting fire run through communities and subdivisions and hoping the homes will stay intact is not necessarily a desirable nor effective approach.

        9. “There are careful forest restoration projects we can undertake — to de-commission roads, restore riparian areas, build earthen dams to reduce flooding risk and to re-introduce beavers. Some very limited and light-handed thinning and burning may be needed, but only for strategic and site-specific reasons. This requires open-minded utilization of newer forest and fire ecology research. ” I think many of us here are fairly familiar with forest and fire ecology research… don’t know of any that says PB is bad.. so I think you (again) need to be more specific.
        10. Finally, the question I always like to ask… “what are the characteristics of fuel treatments and PB that you would support, in sufficient detail that the rest of us could read a project plan by the Santa Fe and figure out if you would like it or not?

        • Hi Sharon,

          I wrote this post originally for a newspaper. It was in the ABQ Journal. So it had to be general. I just posted it on The Smokey Wire as an overview and do not have time right now to write an article with the level of specificity you are asking for. I will try to quickly answer some of your questions, but there is much more detail in the WildEarth Guardians and Defenders of Wildlife scoping comments for the Santa Fe Mountains Project. I was the lead writer of those comments. The URL is below, they are now posted on The Forest Advocate.

          1) The trees most impacted are pinons, but ponderosas are as well. They start to turn brown, look dried out, and to those of us who live with the trees, not healthy. There is a level of tree health that is hard to express in words. By relatively small impacts I mean impacts as small as driving over the roots of a pinon with a car. That can sometimes cause the tree to start declining. Our ecosystem here is fairly fragile.

          Some residents in my neighborhood (bordering the national forest) did thinning projects on their land under NRCS grants. The work was done by hand, with chainsaws. Many of the pinons nearby those that were cut started declining, the needles thinned out and became very short. They may eventually die. Bark beetle broke out and killed a number of trees, both pinon and ponderosa, even though there were no other bark beetle outbreaks in the area.

          In a neighboring community, an area that was thinned in the national forest and resulted in a lot of ponderosa die off, the healthy leave trees just started dying. It was believed it came from the slash piles being in too close proximity to the roots. I have photos of the remaining ponderosa turning brown and looking unhealthy. The almost seem droopy. Wish I could upload a few here.

          None of these areas have really recovered. The photo above my essay is thinning from two decades ago. It doesn’t get appreciably better as the rainy season progresses. There should be a shrub understory there, but there isn’t no matter what time of year.

          The Forest Service now claims they will preserve a shrub understory, but it did not happen in their most recent thinning in the Hyde Park WUI Project. And even if some had been left, it would be burned off in the first broadcast prescribed burn.

          2) I don’t mean not forested. You are assuming that fuel treatments do preserve the forest in a fire. In the high intensity fires during hot and windy weather, fuel treatments do not mitigate fire much. Other fires are ecologically beneficial, but most of the area where there have been fires still have numerous trees remaining and do regenerate well. High intensity fires also have a natural ecological role as I am sure you are well aware, but take longer to regenerate. There is abundant regeneration in the Las Conchas fire scar, including conifers, although ultimately there may be less conifers. That may be as much the consequence of our warmer and drier climate.

          In contrast, thinned areas don’t regenerate well because new growth is burned off regularly. Also there seems to be an adverse impact to removing trees out of clumps of trees that grew together. Sometimes the remaining trees will simply blow over.

          3) Once the forest understory is removed and not allowed to grow back, it affects the entire ecosystem in many ways. It certainly impacts wildlife habitat. Perhaps I should have used the term ecological integrity. Do you think the photo above my essay is a forest that is in a state of ecological integrity?

          4) The La Cueva Fuel Break work order, in the SFNF. It amounted to 93% of trees being removed I believe. The Forest Service doesn’t even deny that they typically remove that many trees, they just prefer to express it in basal area. They also like to point out they do not do this across an entire landscape. That is true. But they intend to do this type of thinning on up to 21,000 acres nearby the Santa Fe area in the Santa Fe Mountains Project.

          5) Thinning slash is left almost all the time here through a dry season when bark beetle is active. It is during the first season that slash can cause bark beetle. They can’t burn the slash the first season as it is not dry enough. Right now slash is lying around the thinned area in the Hyde Park WUI Project above Black Canyon. It sometimes remains on the ground for years. That has improved in the past few years because environmentalists are on the case about it, but it is still happening.

          6) Too open so it becomes very dry. The trees do not appear healthy. Some die. The understory is not present. There is no longer good habitat for some species.

          7) Natural fires occur during fire weather, usually lightening strike. Those fires burn at a range of intensities which is ecologically natural (historically) and beneficial. promoting diversity. Controlled burns only burn at low intensity and are much less likely to promote diversity. Also controlled burns happen in an unnatural time of the year for fire, early spring and late fall, and that does cause different types of ecological effects.

          Perhaps you might want to listen to a talk given by Chad Hanson on this, and on the regeneration of the landscape after the Las Conchas Fire. The first 5 minutes is an introduction by myself with photos of a number of thinned areas here in the SFNF from various projects. They are labeled.

          Fire in our Southwestern Forests Chad Hanson, talk in Santa Fe, Sep 23, 2018

          Fire in our Southwestern Forests, Q & A Chad Hanson, talk in Santa Fe, Sep 23, 2018

          8) Thinning just outside of the 100-200 foot zone in WUI areas is a legitimately controversial subject, but there is no evidence that thinning very far from a WUI area, out in the forest is useful to the protection of homes. My own community values the ecological integrity of the forest nearby, so the majority of the community prefers the forest not surrounding our community be thinned. We believe the amount of added protection that would offer is not enough to make it worth the ecological damage. It’s always the cost/benefit analysis.

          9) Science doesn’t usually call something good or bad. There is a lot of research questioning the efficacy of fuel treatments in the cost/benefit analysis, including a USFS study that finds the probability of a fire meeting a fuel treatment is so low such that fuel treatments are not sufficiently beneficial in the financial cost/benefit analysis.

          Also a study by William Baker that strongly indicates there is too much prescribed burning occurring and it is damaging forest ecology. And that estimates of historical fire rotations currently being used by the USFS are incorrect. That is very much in agreement with my on-the-ground observation.

          10) Look at the Santa Fe Conservation Alternative in the WildEarth Guardians/Defenders of Wildlife Santa Fe Mountain Project scoping comments. It is an overview of what we believe to be a better alternative, we don’t have the funding or manpower to be very specific at this point. It is an alternative that was submitted to the USFS for the project. Section 3.

          I have done my best to answer your questions. But I do want to say, that I do not underestimate the knowledge of the forest we citizens who simply live with the trees have. We can’t quantify it, but we know it and see it in ways perhaps even scientists don’t. These projects are harming our forest in a big way. They are disrespectful to nature itself. I can’t and don’t choose to define that. I will just include here a URL of an essay written by a neighbor of mine that conveys it very well.

          And you will see from the alternative created by Guardians, Defenders and Sierra Club that is a balanced alternative, not opposed to all treatments, just to heavy handed and damaging ones which is mostly what is currently occurring around here.

  2. This is a good post and I agree there should be an open discussion about what the ecology says.

    But the photo accompanying the article is a bit misleading. That photo was clearly taken early in early spring. A photo taken after the summer monsoons would show much more herbaceous growth.

    I’ve hiked that trail and yes there have been a number of burning treatments in that area, but the amount of woody debris was so thick that not many herbaceous plants could establish previously. Hopefully over the next few years that site will establish a lush understory. But is also important to remember that different sites have different inherent levels of productivity, which also depends on rainfall, etc.

    Most thinning and burning projects look beautiful after a few years. Its true they don’t look very nice at first, but the forest changes on a longer timescale then we would sometimes like. It has taken over a century of fire suppression to get to the current overgrown state. It is always possible to cherry-pick sites or studies that come to different conclusions, but the vast majority of research supports the positive benefits of active forest management.

    • The photo above is from two decades ago. The look of it does not change much seasonally. The understory does not return in the rainy season other than the grasses. I am not sure what time of year that photo was taken, but given there are green grasses, I believe it was in the rainy season. That’s the best looking photo I have seen of grass cover. I have much worse. I actually do try to present a realistic view.

  3. Hi Sarah,
    You were spot-on when you talked about what is happening to our planet but I fear you were too optimistic when you equated “Let nature take its course” with “Do no harm”, The condition of the national forests in Arizona is sad proof of the result of following the first rule .
    Let’s look at some data that will shed light on the situation on the |N.F.s in Arizona:
    Net annual timber growth 3.1 million cubic feet (MMcf)
    Annual mortality 68.2 “
    Gross annual growth 71.3 “
    Avg. annual timber cut 15 21% of the total growth
    (Sources :Growth& Mortality- USDA, FS, EVALIDator Version, Cut-USDA FS Annual cut-sold report, Avg. 2016-’18)
    The virtually untended, over-dense, aging, and fire and insect-prone timber stands are unable to withstand the stresses of a changing climate.

    • Hi Mac,

      I don’t think I actually said to let nature take it’s course. I said to let the forest heal. That means be very light handed understanding it is already damaged, and to greatly reduce impacts from our own actions in the forest.

      I did say there are some (true) restoration that can be done, and may even include some limited thinning and burning. But dense stands of trees are generally only in certain areas, not across an entire landscape and thinning projects are generally done over large landscapes. Just focus in a very light-handed way in small areas where some thinning truly is necessary.

      Bottom line is we are seeing the “cure” that is being applied by the Forest Service is oftentimes much worse than the original “illness”. There is not good or easy way out of the current situation in our forest.

  4. Left out of this discussion is the active forest treatment being conducted by New Mexico tribes. The Pueblo of Tesuque is a participating stakeholder in the Santa Fe project. Indeed they collaborated with USFS on the Pacheco Canyon treatment that contributed positively to bringing last summer’s Rio En Medio fire to the ground. It was a beautiful treatment, leaving plenty of logs on the ground, standing snags, lots of horizontal and vertical heterogeneity. Just this past weekend, I saw smoke from a burn on Picuris Pueblo land. Taos Pueblo is doing it too, and all of the pueblos are working in partnership with land management agencies. The Santa Clara Pueblo is still cleaning up after the Las Conchas fire devastated their watershed, previously a significant source of tribal revenue from recreational fishing. It’s notable that cooperation from tribes never enters the conversation. Acknowledging tribal support could raise the issue that in spite of our very public claims that we respect tribal sovereignty (and historic use of fire as a tool to promote land health), we might actually dishonor it if we choose the wrong path.


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