Santa Fe Mountains Project: Opposing Views

There is an interesting tussle over the Santa Fe Mountains Landscape Resiliency Project, on the Santa Fe National Forest. Over the next 10-15 years, the forest says “The project will use prescribed fire as the main tool to restore resiliency to these frequent-fire forests, with small-tree thinning as needed to allow fire to play its natural role in the ecosystem.”

Recently, a group called The Forest Advocate distributed an 8-page flier to the residents of Santa Fe. The group is opposed to the project — “Thinning projects such as the two large-scale projects proposed for the Santa Fe National Forest are highly impactful and damaging to the forest ecosystem.” The other project is the Encino Vista Landscape Restoration Project. The group calls on the forest to produce an EIS for the Santa Fe Mountains project, rather than the EA it recently published.

On Oct. 16, in a letter in a Santa Fe newspaper, two at the University of Arizona professors, Matthew Hurteau and Thomas W. Swetnam, disagreed with the group’s position, writing that “Restoring frequent, low-severity fire, like those accomplished with prescribed burning, is supported by the extensive body of scientific research on this topic.”

FWIW, the Forest Advocate invited Dominick DellaSala to speak via a webinar on the project. DellaSala stated that the Santa Fe NF is “going down a path that could lead to ecological crisis.” The video is very long — almost 2 hours — and I didn’t listen to it all. DellaSala mentioned his latest book, “Conservation Science and Advocacy for a Planet in Peril: Speaking Truth to Power.” Chapter 1 is entitled “The Nuts and Bolts of Science-based Advocacy.” Perhaps this book would make for an interesting discussion here on Smokey Wire.

34 thoughts on “Santa Fe Mountains Project: Opposing Views”

  1. The flyer mentioned above showed up a week or so ago in our mailboxes in greater Santa Fe, a pretty slick production, well funded from local liberal anti-burn folks, and it seems pretty clear that “The Forest Advocate” is just a front for the Wild Earth Guardians, whose ancestral home is Santa Fe.
    The Santa Fe NF has used prescribed fire to mitigate large wildfire impacts over the last decade or so with some success, but there are always going to be folks who don’t like to see any smoke at all. The Forest has taken many steps to include input from a wide range of stakeholders, including native groups (Pueblos), city, urban, and rural dwellers in formulating their plans. An EIS would have tied things up for years around here.
    As for “going down a path that could lead to ecological crisis”, in case folks haven’t figured it out yet, we are already there.

    • “An EIS would have tied things up for years around here.” That sounds like the real reason behind many Forest Service decisions to not do one, which of course is not one of the legal criteria for when to prepare an EIS and is a sure loser in court. The Forest Service chooses the scope of its decisions, and if it is big enough to have potential significant impacts, as EIS is required.

      • FWIW, the EA for the Santa Fe Mountains Landscape Resiliency Project is 254 pages long, including 15.5 pages of literature cited (with 6 papers by Jack Cohen). Only two alternatives are considered — Alternative 1 – No Action and Alternative 2 – Proposed Action, but it seems to me that the Proposed Action is very well thought out and documented.

        • FYI, The Greater Santa Fe Fireshed Coalition helped develop the project.

          The Coalition includes:

          * New Mexico State Forestry
          * Pueblo of Tesuque
          * Santa Fe Watershed Association
          * City of Santa Fe Fire Department
          * City of Santa Fe Water Division
          * Santa Fe County
          * Santa Fe National Forest: Espanola and Pecos Ranger Districts
          * Region 3 of the USDA Forest Service
          * The Nature Conservancy
          * The Forest Stewards Guild
          * Wildfire Network
          * Santa Fe – Pojoaque Soil and Water Conservation District
          * Natural Resource Conservation Service
          * New Mexico Forest Industry Association
          * USGS Jemez Mountain Field Station
          * New Mexico Forest and Watershed Restoration Institute

          • I hear you, Jon. In cases that go to court, judges sometimes look favorably on well-prepared EA’s, and sometimes they don’t. This particular EA seemed very well done.

          • Yes, I’ve worked with some folks to do EA /EIS conversions..based on judges’ interpretation that one is needed. I’ve often thought that there could be a team that could get good at and specialize in conversions.. at the end of the day there is just more verbiage and analysis for litigants to pore over.

            • The quality of the EA should make no difference when the only legal question is whether environmental impacts may be significant.

              I don’t think the content requirements for an EIS are much different either. It’s the extra public involvement opportunities (read by the Forest Service as “extra time”) that change.

  2. I live in extreme western Santa Fe County not far from the Rio Grande and Jemez Mountains. The Forest Service is burning slash piles and conducting prescribed fires every place it can right now but there is minimal smoke and we dodged the wildfire bullet this year.

    Calling people names like “liberal” is childish gibberish reserved for Trumpettes whose careers have been spent on the public dole.

    Comments where insular lifelong bureaucrats declare derision for public opinion simply reinforce my quest to move the Forest Service into Interior as a sister agency to the Bureau of Land Management in cooperation with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and local tribal governments.

    • Larry, every time you say the FS would be better off in Interior, I think of the contrast between the backgrounds of Tracy Stone-Manning and Randy Moore. I’ll go out on a limb here and say partisan thinking never helps resolve disputes- seems to only inflame (sts) them.

      • Colorado and New Mexico are both fortunate to have a majority Democratic representation in Congress with naked contrast to my home state of South Dakota and its neighbor Wyoming where the Black Hills National Forest has been reduced to slash piles because of decades of Republican exploitation so don’t lecture me about partisan impacts on public lands.

  3. The book would indeed be a good topic for discussion, but like much of DellaSala’s vision, it’s inaccessible, a very expensive book. I’ve seen him speak on the SF project, and he made a respectable case for the value of mixed severity fire. To the extent that he sometimes veers towards advocacy for a kind of dice rolling approach, his message isn’t broadly applicable to the SF National Forest. Broadly across the Southwest, how much Mexican spotted owl habitat has been lost to high severity fire? A lot? A little? Regarding the endangered Jemez Mountains Salamander, high severity fire is the greatest threat; after the recent Las Conchas fire drastically reduced its habitat, the species hangs by a thread. While throwing all in with DellaSala’s science, The Forest Advocate doesn’t address such questions as deeply as we might wish.

    • Preservationists around the country often won’t answer such questions, accepting the severe ‘unintended consequences’ as part of their ‘whatever happens’ mindset. In particular, they ignore the damages from human-caused wildfires, which are 85% of all US wildfires. They seem to hope for ‘natural wildfires’, even though only 15% are from ‘natural’ ignitions. Hopes and prayers (to Gaia) aren’t a good plan for our public forests.

  4. At the time we originally discussed this, I seem to recall that the San Juan (not too far away) had done an EA for similar acres of similar activities. It might be interesting for someone to take a look at projects of similar size and activities and look at whether they were EAs or EISs and ask the FS why they had chosen that level of analysis.

    • Well done, Toner. “….we shouldn’t let high-severity fire just happen. It may have its ecological place, but so does the judicious application of thinning and prescribed fire.” Agreed!

  5. Hi contributors to Smokey Wire,

    I stopped posting in this blog shortly after I started the summer before last, because I found some people were denigrating scientists like Chad Hanson and others, often without any specifics or references.

    The editorial Tom Swetnam and Matt Hurteau wrote about The Forest Advocate booklet does the same thing. They state it’s “largely misinformation” without any specifics or references. Swetnam has also personally attacked independent scientists in a way I strongly object to.

    They made inaccurate statements in the editorial, such as suggesting thinning will be mostly around the WUI so burning can occur more safely. There are thousands of acres designated as potential thinning units far out into the forest. The proposal is to thin up to 18,000 acres, and it is very aggressive thinning. They also state that it will just be “some smaller trees” that are cut. The EA states they can cut trees up to 16” DBH which includes the great majority of trees in the project area. A 16” DBH is a fairly large tree in this area.

    They have minimized the impacts of the prescribed burn smoke on the Santa Fe area population. Many people are very ill during the spring and fall from prescribed burns, and doctors support that many of their patients are experiencing serious adverse effects from the smoke.

    The Forest Advocate booklet does not state that no fuel treatments should occur, but points out the “other side” of the issues that agencies and organizations involved with fuel treatments do not acknowledge. We do request an EIS and that a full range of the best available science be incorporated into project planning and analysis.

    I did serve as the WildEarth Guardians SFNF advocate, but am now working through my own organization, The Forest Advocate. We strongly support Guardians, but as I mentioned before we are a completely separate organization so please take anything we state publicly as our own.

    I am not intending to post again, but did decide to make these clarifications.

    Best wishes,


    • Since you bring up Hanson…

      One key thing about Hanson. He claims, especially to potential donors, that the Forest Service routinely uses clearcuts in fire salvage projects. However, if he were to bring evidence of this to court, he would actually win the lawsuits he is losing/lost. Could it be that he has no actual evidence? (Extremely likely)

      Regarding the Santa Fe issues, I support your rights to question what is happening, especially since you are local. I don’t mind seeing the Forest Service having to ‘walk their talk’.

  6. As to EA/EIS conundrum, Siuslaw NF (OR) did an 80-page EIS project-specific 40,000 acre landscape about 1997 (5 Rivers) covering 10 years of timber, road decommissioning, fisheries and wildlife projects in 5 months, start to finish. Saved a boat load of money. No appeals, no litigation. Drew a big yawn from Regional planning shop. Go figure.

    • Jim, thanks for sharing this data point! When an EIS is complex, people often argue that a 90 day comment period is necessary for others to analyze it. So I do think yours was an unusual situation… that you could generate the analysis, put it out for 45? days, analyze the comments and produce the final version. .. I agree that that’s amazing. I’d think it was the fact that the design was such that everyone supported it. Not sure that’s replicable in places without plantations to thin and the NWFP.

  7. Wow, here it is more than a year later that I see this post and string of comments. But for the record, I have to reply to Sarah Hyden’s flat out lie about what I have said about contrarian, advocacy scientists. Nobody will see this, but I must respond for the record. In a public meeting in 2020 I cited the Peery et al 2019 paper “The conundrum of agenda-driven science in conservation”. I highly recommend reading that paper.
    She calls my citation of that paper a “personal” attack on “independent scientists” . That is a load of horse shit. And by the way, I recommend this more recent paper too putting in context the misinformation by the anti forest thinning and prescribed fire clique:
    Tom Swetnam

    • Thanks, Tom. Indeed, the agenda driven misinformation engine must be watched always. The recent slanted dog and pony show they did begged for a real science-based narrative that you, Craig Allen, and Ellis Margolis provided last week or so. I really appreciate how people aren’t laying down in the face of the BS machind.

    • Tom, some people will see this as it’s a new comment. If you would like to tell the story as you see it as of today, we’d welcome a guest post!

    • “Misinformation is incorrect or misleading evidence or discourse that counters best available science or expert consensus on a topic.” This presumes that there is a consensus on wildfire mitigation or agreement on “best.” How was that established as fact?

      It would be interesting to look at the examples in the linked tables, but the links don’t seem to work.

    • I do not like being dragged into this kind of discussion. However, I have decided to set the record straight about having “flat out lied,” as I do not do that. Nor are my words “a load of horse shit.” Too bad that is where this conversation has gone, over a year later. Here is my statement from over a year ago —

      “I stopped posting in this blog shortly after I started the summer before last, because I found some people were denigrating scientists like Chad Hanson and others, often without any specifics or references.

      The editorial Tom Swetnam and Matt Hurteau wrote about The Forest Advocate booklet does the same thing. They state it’s “largely misinformation” without any specifics or references. Swetnam has also personally attacked independent scientists in a way I strongly object to.”

      I did not specifically state it was about the 2020 Common Ground Workshop that Swetnam refers to in his recent comment. However that was one example. He did not cite the paper “Counteracting Wildfire Information” at the Workshop, he just said that a certain independent scientist was “agenda-driven,” which was both insulting and untrue. Just because Jones et al wrote a paper stating that, does not make it any less slanderous.

      The Workshop was shortly after the Jones et al paper came out, so those who were familiar with the paper knew he was referring to it, but most people there didn’t know that. To others, it was just another insult to an independent scientist. The Common Ground Report and the Santa Fe Common Ground Workshop were supposed to be a coming together of the three major perspectives in forest ecology and management. The Workshop was anything but that, it was almost entirely one-sided, so even before Swetnam’s comment, many participants were starting to feel alienated, upset and angry. His comment cemented the bad feeling of the day.

      There have been a number of other incidences, some actually in published opeds, including a recent one, so they can be seen. I don’t want to go through them and have to discuss them, just my choice. Given that I don’t want to, I do wish I hadn’t made that statement over a year ago. Feel free to just consider it my personal opinion and nothing more.

      I really wish there could be a constructive dialogue between the different camps of scientists. I believe independent scientists would be open and willing. Maybe something positive could develop. And in Santa Fe, the public is clamoring to be heard. They are intelligent, and many can simply see the extensive ecological damage caused by such widespread and aggressive fuels treatments in the SFNF. Many are, of course, aware of their own suffering from the health impacts of the large amounts of prescribed burn smoke in our air, although it has slowed down in the past few years due to the MSO injection, Covid and now the aftereffects of the massive and devastating wildfire caused by two escaped USFS prescribed burns. However, with the two very large SFNF projects in planning, we can foresee that there will likely be coming more smoke pollution than ever. And many know that the science that underlies such aggressive treatments is contested, and that a genuine cost/benefit analysis has not yet been done.

      I believe together, along with conservation organizations, a much better project could be developed that synthesizes a range of science and perspective. Our County Commission has really gotten behind trying to help that to happen. I am well aware my comment will be objected to, so all I will say is there is a lot of thought and consideration going into this in the Santa Fe area, from both conservation orgs. and members of the public. It’s worth considering that the “opposing science” is neither “agenda-driven,” nor “misinformation,” but a sincere and thoughtful attempt to deal with the complex forest conundrum we now find ourselves in, with a focus on the holistic ecological well-being of both our forest and our communities.

      I wonder what is the purpose of trying to just shut down the dialogue. I think there should just have a respectful and open dialogue, put all ideas on the table and to synthesize a solution that actually has the support of the Santa Fe area community..

      And I think it’s well worth reviewing Jim Furnish’s excellent post “Response to Counteracting Wildfire Information by Jones et all 2022.”

  8. Land managers have climate change guns to their heads so it’s usually damned if you do and damned if you don’t conduct prescriptive burns. But it’s probably a straight line from the previous administration’s Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and crashes in morale within the US Forest Service to current wildfires and conditions on the Santa Fe National Forest. Pillorying Supervisor Debbie Cress solves nothing.

    There are no mysteries here. Every incident like the Calf Canyon and Hermits Peak Fire is a teaching moment. These are episodes where humans are humbled by climate disruptions created by our own failures. But sitting around waiting for a lightning-caused wildfire to fix a century of human mistakes on the Santa Fe and Black Hills National Forests will burn thousands more houses in the WUI.

  9. $20 says the row between publicly funded scientists and NGOs with loads of lawyers competing for the same foundation money means forest policy will always be interesting but never resolved.


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