Santa Fe forest draft management plan adds flexibility to adapt

Here’s an article that gets into what this blog was started for: national forest forest planning.

Official says Santa Fe forest draft management plan adds flexibility to adapt


In 1987, Ronald Reagan was president, climate change was barely discussed and Santa Fe National Forest drafted its management plan.

Forest officials now are overhauling the 34-year-old plan, with an eye on keeping it malleable for when the climate, landscape and science change in the future.

The revised plan addresses how extended drought, increased development, population growth and more diverse uses are affecting the forest. It also offers broad guidance for adapting to whatever comes in the next 10 or 15 years.

One of the key changes from the Reagan era is how fires are handled.

Past practices have led to high tree density in some areas, leaving these woodlands susceptible to fire, especially in prolonged drought conditions, the plan says.

Fire management in the past 30 years has shifted from suppressing most natural fires to using controlled burns to reduce dense debris and vegetation that can ignite severe wildfires.

The revised plan calls for creating open areas — more gaps between trees as well as clumps of trees in fields — to prevent flames from spreading easily, Cramer said.

To achieve that, crews will increase mechanical tree thinning by 135 percent and almost triple the amount of managed burns, she said.

The plan says lack of natural fires along with livestock grazing, roads and human activities have decreased grasslands. Reduced grass cover keeps water from absorbing into the Earth, increases erosion and leaves the ground barren.

4 thoughts on “Santa Fe forest draft management plan adds flexibility to adapt”

  1. I see there are no comments on what the original plan entailed. I am not familiar with the Santa Fe’s 1980’s plan but was familiar with the 1980’s plans of the Coconino, Kaibab and Apache-Sitgreaves NFs that comprised the majority of the Mogollon Plateau’s Ponderosa Pine dominated forest. The latter was one of those forests described by Randall O’Toole as a bit of an accounting trick. They combined the two forests to maintain the area’s cut. The Sitgreaves was more cut-over, so a higher cut on the Apache could be justified by accounting for future growth and cuts on the Sitgreaves.

    All three forests proposed timber harvest levels based on a set of rosy growth and site capability assumptions, weak data, and misclassified land capabilities. The overall timberland base, biologically speaking, was always inflated, it always included sites that were clearly unsuitable for timber production. They were just declared as timberland because so many foresters saw sawtimber in the overstory.

    By the time the plans were finalized, all three forests were under intensive timber management regimes. There were few accessible stands that had not been cut at least once, and many had been cut twice. Precommercial thinning of regen in more productive stands was the norm and there had been 25 years of heavy pulpwood cutting under the terms of a large contract. The funny thing is, much of that “pulp” was sawtimber size, at least by today’s standards. Not much true old growth remained after 40 years of railroad logging followed by another forty years of “pick and pluck” mortality anticipation and timber stand improvement cuts. The early railroad logged landscape, where they had taken 3/4 to 4/5 of the available timber, was still decades away from any kind of commercial use. There were close to 50,000 acres of former railroad lands that had been cleansed of anything merchantable; checkboarded like the Plum Creek lands in Western Montana.

    To meet the cut, Coconino and A-S planned to cable log the last of the virgin stands, the steep inaccessible canyons that dissected the plateau. Both forests, along with the Tonto, began to implement 12”+ and 9”+ overstory removal prescriptions that were a silvicultural abomination. They conducted group clear cuts on basalt outcrops within sparsely stocked stands. When the injunctions started coming in, they were already entering stands 10-15 years earlier than planned to meet the cut for a company that never reinvested for smaller diameter logs and pulled out when the writing was on the wall that more large logs were going to be left.

    I point this out for two reasons. First, as a reminder that, until the Forest Service admits to its arrogance of the late 20th Century, it’s 21st century solutions will be treated with some scorn and skepticism. It was not just environmental groups who shut down logging on the plateau, there were enough people in the agency who knew the plans were unrealistic and detrimental; and in Arizona the State wildlife agency fought for non game species as well as the Northern Goshawk and Mexican Spotted Owl. The FS also had conducted Terrestrial Ecosystem Surveys that better mapped dominant soil/vegetation types, and this alone provided plenty of additional evidence that much of the timber base was less productive than previously perceived.

    The second reason is that by the mid 1990’s the claim that the country needed thinning to prevent large catastrophic fires was loud and frequent. This was in spite of the fact that thinning had been the norm, the pulpwood sale had removed hundreds of millions of cubic feet of smaller diameter material; nearly every timber sale had been accompanied by machine slash piling and burning, most small fires included “chunking” all thousand hour fuels into a central bonfire, and that the country had been managed intensively and actively for decades. It was a lie of omission to suggest otherwise. The experience hardened me against plans even as I marked up to a thousand small stems a day from a backpack sprayer.

    So when referring to the historic plans, at least try to offer some credible critique as to why they never were implemented on a broad scale and why they were so bitterly opposed. The argument “we did not know any better then” is also a copout. The need for RX fire in Ponderosa Pine was well established by that time, but the agencies chose to go with mechanical treatments.

  2. New Mexico has been home to much larger aspen communities in the fairly recent past. Because it reproduces clonally underground from adult trees aspen (Populus tremuloides) is one of the first plants to reestablish after fire.

    Last year managers working the 3,200 acre Medio Fire on the Santa Fe National Forest steered it away from structures and into areas that have been burned prescriptively. It was driven mostly by ponderosa pine understory and burned into the 2011 Pacheco Fire scar on the northeast.

    The timber industry doesn’t like prescribed fire because burns release aspen and kill pine species. Ponderosa pine sucks billions of gallons from aquifer recharges, needles absorb heat and accelerate snow melt while aspen leaves reflect sunlight in the summer months and hold snowpacks in winter. Insects like the mountain pine beetle and spruce bud worm can help promote drought- and fire-tolerant species like aspen.

    The US Park Service has resumed burning in the Pecos National Historical Park, the Santa Fe National Forest is burning slash piles in the Jemez Mountains and reducing fuels on the Rowe Mesa and in the Santa Fe Fireshed. In southwestern New Mexico the Gila National Forest is also gearing up for fuel reduction.

    Democratic Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham has signed House Bill 57 or the Prescribed Burning Act to help reduce fuel loads and establish training and certification programs to conduct burns on private land.

    The U.S. Forest Service engaged Earth Economics to conduct an analysis of the social, environmental, and economic benefits that the fireshed provides for the surrounding community, and to explore the impact of the proposed fuel reduction treatment on these benefits. This conservative analysis found that the proposed fuel treatments are estimated to generate between $1.44–$1.67 in benefits for every dollar invested in treatment. The majority of these benefits directly accrue to the Santa Fe community, through avoided air quality impacts, recreational losses, damages to structures, and source water impacts. [GREATER SANTA FE FIRESHED: TRIPLE BOTTOM LINE ANALYSIS OF FUEL TREATMENTS | 2021]

  3. “All three forests proposed timber harvest levels based on a set of rosy growth and site capability assumptions, weak data, and misclassified land capabilities. The overall timberland base, biologically speaking, was always inflated, it always included sites that were clearly unsuitable for timber production.”

    This was probably a universal problem, and maybe it was a recognition that they wouldn’t be able to hide the truth this time around that lead them to ignore (in the Directives associated with the 2012 Planning Rule) NFMA’s requirement for sustainable timber harvest levels by setting a sustained yield limit that does not reflect the restrictions imposed by the forest plan.

  4. I also have to take issue with the headline (used for both this article and this post). Steve didn’t quote the language at the end of the article that apparently led to the headline, but here it is:

    **This plan will be more fluid, Cramer said. If another agency such as the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service issues new guidance on, say, an endangered species, it will automatically be integrated into this forest plan, she said. “It kind of goes back to that [new] adaptability,” Cramer said.**

    The Forest Service seems to like to sell the idea of “flexibility” and “adaptive management” as a new feature of plans revised under the 2012 Planning Rule. In fact, the Planning Rule defines adaptive management in terms of the “planning framework” (§219.5), which includes plan amendments (with public participation). While there are some aspects of the Endangered Species Act or other laws that may compel the Forest Service to do something, the idea that another agency can change a forest plan is just not valid. (The Forest Service can always apply new science to project decisions and change the decision based on that information if warranted, as long as the decision remains consistent with the forest plan.)

    The National Forest Management Act was enacted to limit the flexibility of the Forest Service to take actions inconsistent with forest plans unless they go back to the public using the plan amendment process. The Forest Service continues to fight back against these restrictions on its discretion, and seems to have a delusion that it can work around these NFMA requirements. They need to be careful to not mislead the public in this regard.


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