Forest Management: The Words Matter- Guest Post by Sarah Hyden

Graphic: Jonathan Glass and Sarah Hyden

Until reasonably accurate and ecologically appropriate language is used by the Forest Service and their collaborators to describe their forest management strategies and activities, fundamental ecological issues will not be well understood, and the necessary paradigm shift to protect our forests and communities will not occur.

A range of misleading language and terms, picked up by many including the media, create confusion and miscommunication. For example, the term “forest restoration,” when used by the agency, often means aggressive cutting and too-frequent burning of large tracts of forest, sometimes removing as much as 90% of standing trees and most of the natural forest understory. Generally conservation organizations and members of the public do not consider such activities, with the resulting damage to soils and waterways, to be ecological restoration. Instead they consider restoration to be strategically improving the overall structure and function of forest ecosystems and processes while causing minimal impacts. Strategies to achieve this include replanting riparian areas, protecting soil microbiomes, promoting beaver habitation, fencing out cows, and decommissioning excessive forest roads. The goal is to create conditions that hold moisture in forest ecosystems, which makes landscapes naturally more fire resistant and bring them into a state of greater ecological integrity.

“Restoration” has become a euphemism the Forest Service uses, borrowed from the language of conservation, that makes what the agency actually does to our forests more palatable. Other misleading agency forest management terms are “thinning” (removing most of the vegetation from a forest is too heavy-handed to be considered thinning), “fuels treatments” (trees and understory are so much more than fuels), “forest health” (there are no clear parameters for forest health), and forest “resiliency.”

“Resiliency” means the capacity of an ecosystem to return to its previous condition after impacts, such as fire. Forests that have been impacted by having had large amounts of vegetation removed due to aggressive cutting and continued too-frequent prescribed fire do not tend to return to their previous condition, and perpetually remain in a degraded state. Untreated or very lightly-treated forests that are allowed to regenerate after a fire may return to their previous condition. So which is resiliency?

The Forest Service concludes analysis of the vast majority of its vegetation cutting and burning projects with a “Finding of No Significant Impact.” Such findings are based on criteria of significance although the findings are often challenged, but the actual words imply that the impacts are relatively minor and not substantive enough to be particularly concerned about – even though we can often plainly see otherwise. A Finding of No Significant Impact is routinely applied to highly damaging projects that leave forests ecologically broken for decades to come. The impacts of such projects cannot be reasonably called “not significant.”

Interested parties trying to obtain information about Forest Service landscape management often must rely on FOIA, or the Freedom of Information Act. However, substantive FOIA requests can now literally take years. When the requests are finally fulfilled, it’s often too late to be useful. To call this “Freedom of Information” from the Forest Service is yet another misnomer. It might be more accurately called the “Nearly Impossible to Obtain Information Act” at this point.

In 2022, three wildfires were ignited by the Forest Service in the Santa Fe National Forest during implementation of prescribed burns, which escaped and burned a total of 387,000 acres. There have been many articles and op-eds written locally and nationally about these fires that point to them as examples of why we need even more thinning and burning of our forests to moderate the effects of wildfire, without mentioning the fact that the fires were actually caused by escaped prescribed burns — or that fact was included, but as more or less a footnote. The Cerro Grande Fire, which was ignited in 2000 due to an escaped prescribed burn (by the US Park Service that time) has also been used as such an example. To do so, without acknowledging the importance of agency prescribed burns having precipitated these same wildfires, amounts to a kind of circular reasoning that suggests we need even more of what caused much of the wildfire we are trying to prevent  – albeit with some procedural changes and further safety measures. It’s a misuse of both language and logic, and clouds the underlying issues.

Articles and op-eds concerning the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire often make statements such as “the Forest Service accidentally triggered New Mexico’s largest wildfire.” This is not entirely false, as the fire was not started on purpose. But what is much more accurate to write is that the Forest Service recklessly or negligently ignited New Mexico’s largest wildfire. The agency had to know it was a substantial risk to ignite the Las Dispensas prescribed burn, which precipitated the Hermits Peak Fire, during a particularly intense high wind pattern, with red flag warnings nearby. The agency had to be clear that if the fire did escape, it would likely spread fast and be very difficult to extinguish until the monsoons came months later. Locals were warning those responsible for the burn not to light up a burn at that time, because it was obvious to them that it would be very dangerous. The Forest Service did not heed their warnings. The Chief’s review of the Hermits Peak Fire indicates that the Forest Service was feeling pressured to catch up on implementing prescribed burns, because they have committed to greatly increasing cutting and burning treatments in our forests, even though safer burn windows are decreasing due to the warming and drying climate.

Additionally, Forest Service personnel knew fire was spreading from the Calf Canyon burn piles 10 days before the Calf Canyon Fire officially broke out during a high wind event. They made efforts to contain the spreading pile burns. They also carried out aerial surveillance over the pile burn area during those days. It was predictable that in early April, the winds could rapidly spread any escaping fire. That the agency did not make a full out effort to address every pile, considering that they knew some of them had been smoldering and that high winds were coming, has at least the appearance of recklessness and/or negligence. Almost two years later, no analysis of this fire has been released by the Forest Service. To use the word “accidentally” in regards to the ignition of this destructive wildfire, which burned entire communities, does not provide any realistic understanding of what likely occurred. A realistic understanding could be a basis for making sure such a catastrophe never happens again.

During the weeks after the Calf Canyon Fire began, the Forest Service identified the cause of the fire as “under investigation,” even though they had been surveilling and attempting to contain the escaping pile burns from the beginning of the incident. Given this, “under investigation” cannot be construed as a reasonably accurate description of what the Forest Service knew about the cause of the Calf Canyon Fire. They surely knew the cause from the very beginning with an extremely high degree of probability. It took several weeks for the Forest Service to finally announce that the Calf Canyon Fire was also precipitated by their own actions. This lack of transparency created even more distrust and anger in an already traumatized community.

In a recent article about the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire, the Forest Service was quoted as stating “Record-setting blazes have become common in the West, where risks have reached crisis proportions.” This statement is somewhat true, and yet highly misleading at the same time. It would be substantially more accurate to at least mention that much of the total “wildfire” burning in our forests is intentionally ignited by the agency.

In August of last year, I wrote an article titled “Forest Service Wildfire Management Policy Run Amok.” In it, I described three New Mexico wildfires in just over a year that were greatly expanded due to intentional ignitions by the US Forest Service. I provided evidence, based on thermal hot spot maps, that during the over 325,000 acre Black Fire, New Mexico’s second largest wildfire, up to half of the fire was likely intentionally ignited by the Forest Service.

Since that time, I met with some local Forest Service leadership along with other conservation organization representatives, and a Forest Service fire specialist confirmed that the agency did intentionally ignite much of the Black Fire, from approximately 10 miles to the south and 6 miles to the northwest of the main fire.

Of course, I asked why the Forest Service expanded and ignited the fire to this extent, burning most of the Aldo Leopold Wilderness, and with substantial collateral damage. We were told it was done for “resource management objectives.” That means the fire expansion was essentially a huge Forest Service intentional burn, similar to a prescribed burn, but with no prescription or advanced planning and/or NEPA  (National Environmental Policy Act) analysis. Yet the Forest Service has continued to call this a “wildfire.” with no mention of the role they played in the expansion of the fire. That is a misleading use of the word “wildfire,” since much of the fire was deliberately ignited by the agency. This perpetuates a cycle of even more cutting and burning, since the Forest Service is trying to moderate the effects of the seemingly increased amounts of wildfire.

So what actually is the wildfire “crisis” that the Forest Service is talking about? I believe it’s possible that overall, the Forest Service ignites or expands wildfires to an extent approaching a third to a half of what is counted as wildfire acres burned. No one should simply accept the Forest Service’s use of the term “wildfire crisis” when the agency is expanding and igniting such a major proportion of the fire on our landscapes. Such wildfire expansions have become policy — it’s referred to as applied wildfire. If we are experiencing a wildfire crisis, then it’s a crisis that can be quickly mitigated by the Forest Service simply refraining from igniting so much unplanned wildfire in our forests.

Fires of all intensities are natural and beneficial to fire-adapted forested landscapes. An open and honest process that defines clear parameters for managing wildfire is required in order to safely and effectively allow moderate amounts of naturally-ignited wildfire to burn in our forests. A revised wildfire management policy must be created through a transparent NEPA process. This means using language that is not loaded with unproven and controversial assumptions or agendas. Otherwise, what has happened to the residents so severely impacted by the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire, and to our forests, many of which have become over-cut and over-burned, will happen again and again. We should not accept the agency’s statements about a wildfire crisis uncritically.

As long as the media, conservation organizations, and the public continue to accept euphemisms and double-speak to describe forest management strategies and activities, we will not collectively have the understanding to resolve the underlying issues. The issues must be publicly acknowledged with clear and direct language, even though there will always be substantial differences of opinion. The Forest Service and their collaborators should be thoroughly questioned on their use of misleading language. Somehow, the Forest Service and their collaborators, along with conservation organizations, conservation scientists, and the public, will have to come together with a mutual ecological language and understanding. Then, we can design ecologically beneficial projects that allow our forests to reset in a warming climate.


Graphic composite photos:
Top left – Santa Fe watershed, thinned in the early 1990’s and burned twice. Photo: Fred King.
Top right – Prescribed burn smoke over the Santa Fe ski basin. Photo: Satya Kirsch.
Bottom left – A USFWS firefighter watches a prescribed fire. Retweeted by Santa Fe National Forest. Photo by USFWS.
Bottom right – La Cueva Fuel Break, thinned in 2017 and burned once. Photo: Lyra Barron.


Sarah Hyden is the co-founder and director of The Forest Advocate. The Forest Advocate is a not-for-profit organization that advocates for forests and publishes news and resources for forest protection, with a focus on the Santa Fe National Forest.

31 thoughts on “Forest Management: The Words Matter- Guest Post by Sarah Hyden”

  1. “An open and honest process that defines clear parameters for managing wildfire is required in order to safely and effectively allow moderate amounts of naturally-ignited wildfire to burn in our forests.”

    I’m wondering what the recently revised forest plans in the southwest do to promote this.

  2. The use of the phrase “Forest Restoration” Could indeed come across as deceptive to anyone who does not understand the historical and ecological context. The “restoration” part of the phrase is derived from restoring the forest to the condition of an earlier time period when forests had more resilience than they do today. To be accurate, most forests are not instantaneously restored by thinning and prescribed fire alone, but thinning and prescribed fire can put them on a path to full restoration. Thinning and prescribed fire can reduce the amount of surface fuels and decouple fuel ladders such that there is less likelihood of crown fire. Full restoration would be to grow back large trees and there is no sudden fix for that. However, without thinning there is no hope of growing back large trees .

    I can see how forest restoration could be mis-used as a term. If the prescription is just to grab volume then it is not restoration.

    • Indeed. Even if we let every ‘natural’ ignition burn, it would still be unlikely that old growth forests would ever develop. There is no way to remove man’s massive wildfire footprint on our forests. Sadly, some people are even against managing expressly for future old growth (which includes commercial logging). It would also include skillfully-controlled burns, which don’t burn out of prescription.

  3. I agree with Sarah that we should be doing NEPA on fire management.
    fire management amendments that include PODs, hazard trees, prescribed burns, fuelbreaks and maintenance, and conditions and locations for so-called managed fire. For western forests I think that would be more useful and build better public support than the MOG effort and more even than generic plan revision.

    I also agree about “forest restoration” for different reasons. “Restoration” to what? 200 years ago? 300 years ago? As a practical person, this seemed kind of Disneyesque and obviated the need to agree on “what about the past is desirable, why is it desirable, can we physically do it, and how much will it cost?” Plus, as a geneticist, it has some implicit values imbedded… clearly we can’t go back to the genotypes of the past, or before certain species hybridized, or..even before non-natives showed up.

    Sarah says:

    “For example, the term “forest restoration,” when used by the agency, often means aggressive cutting and too-frequent burning of large tracts of forest, sometimes removing as much as 90% of standing trees and most of the natural forest understory. Generally conservation organizations and members of the public do not consider such activities, with the resulting damage to soils and waterways, to be ecological restoration. Instead they consider restoration to be strategically improving the overall structure and function of forest ecosystems and processes while causing minimal impacts. Strategies to achieve this include replanting riparian areas, protecting soil microbiomes, promoting beaver habitation, fencing out cows, and decommissioning excessive forest roads. The goal is to create conditions that hold moisture in forest ecosystems, which makes landscapes naturally more fire resistant and bring them into a state of greater ecological integrity.”

    The activities that Sarah calls “restoration” sounds like what watershed folks call “watershed restoration”. Which is fine and I agree, and it also requires trade-offs especially with roads and trails. I am not a fan of the term “ecological integrity” which is equally vague.

    I actually like the term “resilience” (I don’t know who started “resiliency” but it seems unnecessary) and we will still disagree about that, but at least we would be disagreeing about something substantive, e.g. “which plants, animals will be resilient to what?” And the importance of water in dry places. Rather than concepts like NRV, ecosystem processes and functions, restoration, health, integrity and all that.

    • In my mind (and I think in the Planning Rule), NRV, ecosystem process and functions are substantive in that they can be measured, and I don’t see how you can distinguish them from what you call substantive. I agree that the last three terms are characterizations that need further definition to be substantive (the former actually define the latter).

  4. Our Lady of the Arroyo worked at the Los Alamos Medical Center during the Las Conchas Fire and told her man at post time that residents who lost homes and belongings mostly blamed Republican Governor Susana Martinez for her hesitation to ask President Barack Obama for an emergency declaration.

    Every incident like that fire, the Calf Canyon and Hermits Peak Fire are teaching moments: episodes where humans are humbled by climate catastrophes created by our own failures. But like in 2011, New Mexicans who were displaced and burned out by the 2022 wildfire complex are increasingly frustrated with the Federal Emergency Management Agency as election year unfolds.

    Even New Mexico’s Democratic congressional delegation is fretting the sluggish pace of compensation after under-monitored US Forest Service pile burns blew up ahead of a dry Spring. In January, Senators Martin Heinrich, Ben Ray Luján and Representative for the Third District Teresa Leger Fernández sent a second letter to FEMA Administrator Deanne Criswell hoping to expedite payments to claimants. So far, the Claims Office has paid out over $330 million or about 8% of the $4 billion fund and the office has received over $518 million in claimed damages. New Mexico is in FEMA Region 6.

    Tribes, well-funded local and volunteer fire departments could manage prescriptive burns, create defensible space and burn road ditches to create buffers where contract fire specialists don’t exist. But even government can’t always protect you from your own stupidity.

    In New Mexico, Republican ideologues who poke at competitors and declare their derision for those in public service simply reinforce my quest to move the Forest Service into Interior as a sister agency or even married to the Bureau of Land Management in cooperation with the Bureau of Indian Affairs and local tribal governments.

    Unless claims are processed more quickly Democratic voters in San Miguel and Mora Counties are going to stay home in November putting New Mexico’s blue state solidarity at risk.

    • Much of that is true, but the primary cause of the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire was not climate catastrophe. What ignited the Hermits Peak Fire was the USFS igniting the Las Dispensas broadcast prescribed burn in a high winds pattern with red flag warnings nearby — even though locals begged them not to do it as the danger was obvious. And the USFS did not have backup reinforcements nearby.

      The cause of the other two SFNF escaped prescribed burns, the Calf Canyon and Cerro Pelado pile burns, was fire creeping from smoldering slash piles. That cannot be ascribed to climate change, it has more to do with how pile burns are implemented and monitored.

      As long as people call the cause of those fires climate change, the USFS will not be compelled to change their fundamental burn strategies.

      The USFS has stated they intend to increase fuels treatments up to 4X current levels, while at the same time safer burn windows are greatly decreasing. They aren’t able to implement burns safely, at least in the SFNF, even at current levels of burning. In the past 10 years in the SFNF, the USFS caused the ignition of wildfire on 387,000 acres, while about 27,000 acres burned due to all other causes, including all other human-caused ignitions.

      What they intend to do appears impossible to carry out, and I believe virtually guarantees more wildfires ignited by USFS prescribed burns. The sad part is, the amount of wildfire in the SFNF that was not ignited by the USFS during the past decade was well with in an ecologically beneficial range (amount of acres burned), and not damaging to communities.

      The mainstay of the Forest Service’s new procedures, which they claim largely solves the issue of escaped pile burns, is to use infrared sensors to detect heat in pile burns. Infrared devices devices primarily detect heat on the surface. They tend to not detect heat sources that are deep underground, such as smoldering roots or buried embers.

      Until it is acknowledged that at this point, the USFS is trying to carry out a strategy that is unfit for current conditions, at least in dry forests, catastrophes such as the three USFS ignited wildfires in the SFNF in 2022 will just continue to happen.

      • Back in graduate school in the late 70s my major Prof Jim Peek, used to talk about proximate and ultimate causes. The proximate cause of the Calf Canyon, Hermits Peak fires was ignitions by the Forest Service. The ultimate cause was a century of fire suppression, that followed a cessation of Native American burning in the 1800s. In essence the Forest Service is put in the position of being the the bomb squad. When detonating the bomb does not go right and damage happens there are people who point fingers. The obvious thing is these horrible fires would happen sooner or later, because all of the prerequisites (ultimate causes) are there. We need to support prescribed fire knowing it won’t always go as planned, because fire is inevitable.

        • Even if, in certain landscapes, prescribed fire causes 14X the amount of acres to burn as compared to all other causes?? Not to mention entire communities being burned out and human deaths? Does that risk/benefit analysis really make sense?

          In project specific ways, the USFS just needs to look at the data. The lessons of the Santa Fe National Forest escaped prescribed burns should not be ignored. In the newly released Encino Vista Landscape Restoration Project Preliminary EA, there is not one mention of prescribed burn escapes……as if they never happen in the Santa Fe National Forest. Same with the Santa Fe Mountains Project EA. Which of course means they are not doing project level analysis of the potential for escaped prescribed burns, or providing mitigations for the specific project landscapes. Why? Seems like denial to me.

          Not every acre will burn in the near to medium term future (unless the USFS ignites them). So the argument that if the USFS doesn’t cause the wildfires, something else will, does not hold water.

          Once the actual on-the-ground data is taken in and accounted for, then that doesn’t mean prescribed fire should not be implemented. It just means that a new strategy and new understanding of the risks of burning in a drying climate needs to be developed.

          • Sarah- With regards to your statement “Not every acre will burn in the near to medium term future (unless the USFS ignites them” if you are referring to dry forests as is the forest type in much of the west, you are very much mistaken. Nearly every acre will burn in the next two decades or so. The outcome for each fire will be determined partly by the weather before and during the fire event, and partly by tree density, species composition, surface fuels, and stand structure. Most of us who care about our forests and have a long personal history with them want to see stand densities reduced to something closer to historic condition, and for fuels to be reduced by prescribed fire following thinning. We want fire, but not the way we have been getting it. We need to be moving quickly, and if we don’t we are going to lose a lot of these forests. Its time for less study and more action! And yes, some prescribed fires will not go as planned. Most do.

            • “Nearly every acre will burn in the next two decades or so.”

              “And yes, some prescribed fires will not go as planned.”

              One should consider prescribed burn escapes by total acres burned, not by the number of incidents. Total acres burned (from prescribed burn escapes) is a very different and much more meaningful statistic. In the Santa Fe National Forest, in the past decade, just over 387,000 acres burned due to USFS escaped prescribed burns, and just over 27,000 acres burned from all other causes, including all other human causes. I know the SFNF has had it particularly bad lately but prescribed burn escapes will only increase as the Forest Service increases prescribed burns, despite decreasing numbers of safer burn windows in which to implement the burns.

              If you take out the wildfire acres ignited by USFS prescribed burns, 27,000+ acres is a very small amount of the total Santa Fe National Forest (1.6 million acres), which burned in one decade. So based on the past decade (and also history prior to the last decade) even if there is an increase in fire due to the warming climate, one cannot possibly expect that the entire forest will burn in a decade or two. I think you would find similar stats in most other forests.

              Here is a Santa Fe National Forest 10-year fire chart, if interested —

              IMO, many (I will not say “most” as I have no stats about this) who care about forests do not want to see a perpetually stunted forest from over-zealous fuels treatments which include overly frequent prescribed burns that do not allow a natural understory to ever return, and leave the forest too open and drying out. Many prefer to primarily focus on genuine restoration that promotes the retention of moisture in forest ecosystems..

              • I prefer to see open forests with trees spaced out so that they can grow well. In an un-managed forest stand that has not seen fire in a long time, I have cut 65 year-old sapling Douglas-fir trees that are smaller than my wrist. It is shady alright, but sooner or later the trees will all go away either by fire or insect attack, and there will be thousands of acres of dead trees and sunshine. Great for pollinators, and a few good years of woodpecker habitat, but a big loss overall. We can avoid this scenario by thinning and prescribed fire. Yes, sometimes it will go sideways, but doing nothing is assured disaster. Unfortunately NEPA favors then status quo.

              • “Not every acre will burn in the near to medium term future….” is absolutely a true statement for the Santa Fe NF as forest types range from pinyon-juniper to spruce-fir all of which have very different fire return intervals (historically). But looking at just one decade of fire and extrapolating is pushing the boundaries of good science. There were some big mistakes on the Santa Fe and that needs to be fixed.

                “The proximate cause of the Calf Canyon, Hermits Peak fires was ignitions by the Forest Service. The ultimate cause was a century of fire suppression….” I would argue it was a combination of human error and extreme weather – extreme weather that was pretty normal for the spring. I’ve seen this first hand where fire ripped through cottonwood and aspen stands in the spring. Were parts of the forest outside of the NRV? Maybe. One thing to understand about mixed conifer forests in this area is that they also have mixed fire histories, at least they do just a bit north of the Santa Fe on the Rio Grande NF where I have lived and worked for over 45 years.

                Personally, for me, the use of the word “beneficial” is purely based on values. It is a human construct. Nature (being a bit anthropomorphic here) has no such values, it just responds to the conditions. It seems it is better to state one’s management goals and then base critiques on that.

                In the Southwest, conditions conducive to large fires has historically varied with weather patterns affected by ENSO and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. Several years ago I read a paper that found that historically, 70% of all large fires in the SW occurred when PDO was in its negative phase. I can’t remember what the timeline was the analysis covered, so maybe that is a moot point. Anthropogenic-driven climate change seems to be messing with those patterns some.

                To Sarah’s point about the Black Fire – I don’t have much knowledge about that fire, but I think the point is a good one concerning fire personnel greatly enlarging or assisting the spread of natural start wildfires. I don’t know what went into the decision on that fire, but I am aware of fire personnel in this area making on the ground decisions to assist natural start fires. It’s one thing to burn out areas in an effort to keep a fire from spreading, it is quite another to assist a natural start fire to get around a natural fire break without NEPA to provide that guidance like I have seen happen here.

                • “It’s one thing to burn out areas in an effort to keep a fire from spreading, it is quite another to assist a natural start fire to get around a natural fire break without NEPA to provide that guidance like I have seen happen here.”

                  Mike, where specifically have you seen this happen? Just want to find out more about it……

                  • I’m not willing to give specifics as it would be easy to connect dots to specific individuals. My hope is that discussions on TSW can have a level of safety to them. What I will say is both situations I am aware of were told to me by firefighters on the scene. One of the situations probably added less than 100 ac to the managed fire; the other added 10,000 or more acres.

                    Were these cases of a rogue firefighter or two? Maybe, or maybe there was a wink and a nod from management.

                    I remember wondering during the escaped fires near Santa Fe whether chances were taken due to the pressure to meet targets. In some ways, it is similar to the risks that used to be common place in firefighting in an effort to suppress fires at all costs. Those costs ended up being firefighter’s lives. I almost got burned over in the Black Hills in one of those situations (we escaped to a safe zone and were then surrounded by the fire). We protested the assignment but were told do it or go home. We should have gone home.

                    • Mike, it even stated in the Chief’s Review of the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire that they perceived themselves to be behind in implementing burns. So they were trying to reach some pre-ordained benchmark for sure.

                      I can see why you would not want to repeat something told to you by specific firefighters. I don’t think it’s rogue firefighters, I believe it’s basically policy these days to expand wildfires. I have been told that expanded wildfires count as acres treated. During the Pass Fire and the Comanche Fire, the USFS was very clear in fire updates that they were expanding the fires. They actually made a burn plan with burn units to expand the Comanche Fire.

                      BTW, I do agree about the 10-year fire chart and we may expand it, but it’s complicated. If Las Conchas gets included, which on one hand, as a non-USFS-ignited fire it would be good to have it included for balance, it gets confusing because there is some evidence that much of that fire was also expanded by the USFS. If you go back to 2000, then there is Cerro Grande, which mostly burned in the SFNF, but was ignited by the NPS. Still it was just about the same MO.

                      That chart isn’t meant to be science, more of an illustration of what’s going on in the recent decade. Certainly that the FS ignited 14X the amount of wildfire as from all other causes in the most recent and therefore most relevant decade, is important to consider.

              • I agree with Sarah on the acres burned being a measure and not the number of incidents.
                When FS folks say “it’s only 1%” or whatever, I think it’s dismissive of peoples’ concerns… people who have lost their homes and done a great deal of suffering. There’s also the scale issue.. similar to “litigation is not a problem, it’s only x percent nationally” but if you are in Region 1 it’s more. Choosing the scale as national can lead to dismissing peoples’ concerns locally and regionally.

                • Thank you Sharon. The people who were impacted by the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire are so hurt, their land and lives so disrupted, and little help has come. Three people died from post-fire flooding.

                  Many will despise the Forest Service for generations to come as their family land is burned to black poles, and in many cases their houses too.

                  This emnity is not what we want. We have to work together with the Forest Service and at least design better and safer projects. But the Forest Service just released an EA for the biggest project ever proposed in the SFNF, the Encino Vista Project. There is not one mention in the entire EA of the risk or potential for escaped prescribed burns. So there is no analysis or mitigations specific to our dry climate and landscape, nor specific to the project area.

                  I believe the probability is very high there will be another prescribed burn escape in the SFNF.

                    • It is unacceptable. Here is the Encino Vista draft EA. You would not know from this EA that the FS ever had a prescribed burn escape in the SFNF.


                      Yes, a lawsuit is needed for both the Encino Vista Project and the Santa Fe Mountains Project, as the USFS also did not analyze the risk of escaped prescribed burns, or provide mitigations, in that EA. After a lot of pressure they did acknowledge two of the prescribed burn escapes had recently occurred in the project decision (they had not yet disclosed that the Cerro Pelado Fire was also caused by an escaped prescribed burn), but basically just said those are the risks, as if they were acceptable risks.

  5. I might note that the professional international Society for Ecological Restoration has established definitions and much more for what constitutes “restoration”. The FS, to my knowledge, pays no attention to established ER principles, and almost no ER projects would qualify based on SER standards.

  6. Ironic the Black Fire is mentioned, the second largest fire in NM history…and nothing is said about the effects of the Black Fire. Why is no one raising holy hell about it like Calf Canyon? Because the effects of the Black Fire couldn’t be more different from the effects of Calf Canyon. If I were Thanos, I’d snap my fingers and repeat the Black Fire effects across all of the frequent fire adapted forests in the west. The largest high severity patch size was around 600 acres and the average high severity patch size was very very small. The Black Fire burned within NRV, maybe even less severe than NRV, while Calf Canyon was a polar opposite. Sure the number of total acres are a lot in the Black Fire and cause one to do a double take, but ecologically it was entirely beneficial. See the fire severity map from the link below, it’s simply amazing and an example of how a wildfire managed for resource benefits can have tremendous ecological benefits.

    This stuff is nuanced. Let’s stop talking about it like it’s black and white.

    • The USFS ignited portion of the Black Fire damaged cutthroat trout habitat, decimated sections of the Continental Divide Trail and post-fire flooding severely damaged canyons in the SW portion of the fire. It damaged Sierra County infrastructure and also private infrastructure. How do we know that burning virtually the entire Aldo Leopold Wilderness was ecologically beneficial? It was done on the spur-of-the-moment with no real advance planning, and no NEPA analysis or public involvement. Moreover, it’s a bad precedent to allow the USFS to jettison NEPA and reasonable project planning and analysis.

      • How do we know!?!?!? Almost all the literature on NRV fire in frequent fire systems finds that these forest ecosystems evolved with frequent low-mixed severity fire and depend on the effects of this disturbance process to be healthy. There’s a stack of published literature on this that’s been building for 30 years.

        By definition, there were environmental effects from the natural disturbance process… some trees died (most didn’t), soil moved, wildlife were affected (some individuals were killed, breeding habitat was affected), but the larger ecosystem benefited and habitat was also created. Fire kills trees and dead trees are extremely important in-stream habitat for salmonids, including cutthroat trout.

        The idea that a wilderness experiencing the primary natural disturbance process it evolved with and demonstrably requires to be healthy did not benefit from the effects of this fire, and was actually harmed, is not based on any dots I can connect. The AL Wilderness is one of my favorite places in the world. It is spectacular for so many reasons, but the intact disturbance process is truly something to experience. Some of the best and and most respected forest ecologists around are showcasing the effects of the Black Fire as a desired condition.

        • I wasn’t questioning the value of fire on the landscape, the question if how much is optimal in a warming climate. That is what we don’t know. I believe the expanding USFS firing operations, implemented without advanced planning or a NEPA process, may be introducing too much fire on our landscapes, especially added to escaped prescribed burns. More is not always better. And there are some very damaged canyons in the NW section of the Black Fire scar from post-fire flooding (this I have been told by reputable sources.) All this should have been considered through a NEPA process and cumulative impacts should have been considered — in order to avoid environmental disasters which sometimes occurs. Why should such large-scale projects be done on-the-spot without planning, analysis and public input? This was done in the context of a fire under full suppression. The legality of that is highly questionable.

          • NEPA sets the defaults for management of public lands as doing nothing, because doing something requires an EA or EIS. I visited the 400,000 acre Bootleg Fire on the Fremont-Winema National Forest in Oregon in 2021. Most of Bootleg Fire was at high severity in an ecosystem that historically experienced mainly frequent low severity fire. Bootleg was an environmental disaster, and no it was not sparked by a prescribed fire. I photographed examples where thinning followed by prescribed fire prior to Bootleg Fire made a night and day difference. I asked a forester who worked in fuels why more thinning and prescribed fire was not being done. The answer was that getting through the NEPA process was so time consuming and expensive. So in effect insisting on NEPA for every small project and litigating it has very often stood in the way of the very measures that would ensure a forest continues to exist as forest and not shrubland.

            • “So in effect insisting on NEPA for every small project and litigating it has very often stood in the way of the very measures that would ensure a forest continues to exist as forest and not shrubland.”

              Firing operations that greatly expand fires during wildfire management actions are not projects. They are actions that occur on-the-spot without serious advanced planning and without analysis.

              But if you want to consider the firing operations that were done in conjunction with the Black Fire, it appears from aerial hot spot mapping that up to half the fire was ignited by the USFS. So that is up to 150,00+ acres. That’s not a small “project,” and not doing due diligence before igniting that much landscape is not reasonably acceptable.

              Some of the aggressive fuels treatments the USFS implements in dry forests turns forest into unhealthy and relatively barren landscapes that are arguably not even forest any longer. A fire burning though may be ultimately more ecologically beneficial than such aggressive and ongoing fuels treatments which are regularly repeated, not that I am a big supporter of even more fire on the landscape. With the warming climate we will have more fire, and a cost/benefit analysis might suggest that fuels treatments be strategic, limited and focused on genuine restoration.

              There are times when fuels treatments are beneficial, one can always find an example, but it’s more important to look at the overall cost/benefit analysis.

            • NEPA for “small” projects would be small, and I don’t think there have been many prescribed burns litigated. That said, when something is a priority and is expensive, we should recognize that by funding it with what is needed to do the work right (not by trying to cut corners). If they don’t have the money to do the job, doesn’t that reflect the real-world priority of that job?

  7. An issue with burn severity mapping is the bias of the map makers in portraying outcomes. None of the outfitters and guides or the dude ranch owners thought the Black Fire was beneficial. The post fire flooding blew out the canyons on the south end to bed rock. Horses can’t tread there now.

    Nothing about using fire drones, ping pong balls, and helitorches mimics natural processes. The Gila and Aldo Leopold Wilderness are not suddenly a fairyland of happy forests. It’s a burned out war zone. Ask Cindy Chajnacky. She says she won’t hike there again.

    Among other things, by lighting big fires and then bigger counter fires, wildlife are confused and then trapped.

    When SCOTUS overturns the Chevron Deference this summer, the FS will have no choice but to disclose the cumulative impacts of cowboy burning across the West.


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