New Mexico's best known environmentalist was ousted from a Southwestern forest protection organization earlier this month following a dispute over the organization's direction.


Sam Hitt, a founding member of Southwest Forest Alliance, which represents 55 conservation groups in New Mexico and Arizona, was voted off the group's board after he stormed out of a meeting in Santa Fe on April 5. The board, whose members include some of the Southwest's leading environmentalists, voted 12-0 to boot Hitt. There were two abstentions.


Hitt, leader of the Santa Fe-based Forest Guardians group, said he was removed because he advocated an end to commercial logging on national forests.


He said afterward, "I'm concerned that some conservationists have turned into lapdogs for anti-environmental politicians and their backers in the timber industry, instead of being watchdogs for the public interest."


Leaders of the alliance said Hitt was booted for a reason that had nothing to do with the no-logging proposal: he had become impossible to work with.


"Sam has been consistently disruptive and unsupportive of the alliance's mission," said board member Kieran Suckling, head of the Tucson-based Southwest Center for Biological Diversity.


David Henderson, another board member and head of the New Mexico chapter of the Audubon Society, also said that Hitt's advocacy of a public-lands logging ban - first broached by the Sierra Club several months ago - -had nothing to do with why he was removed from the board. He's made it clear he does not support the vision of the alliance. Not only that, he actively tries to work against that vision," Henderson said.


But both Henderson and Suckling acknowledged that they had reservations about calling for a ban of all logging activity - including commercial firewood cutting - on the Southwest's national forests.


David Orr of the John Muir Project in Pasadena, Calif., and a volunteer with the Sierra Club, said Hitt's advocacy of the no-logging proposal may have put him at odds with the views of the alliance's major funder, the Pew Charitable Trusts of Philadelphia.


"I don't think Pew would fund an organization that would adopt our proposal," said Orr, who helped develop the Sierra Club's no-commercial-logging position.


Pew, which has provided $600,000 to the alliance over the past three years, has been charged before with redirecting environmental agendas (HCN, 4/15/96). Some Northwestern environmentalists, for example, say the Pew-supported Ancient Forest Alliance accepted compromise forest plans that allowed logging to continue in many of the region's old-growth areas.


Lincoln Bormann, a Pew official, said, "We don't have a position one way or another" on the Sierra Club's no-cut proposal. He also said the trust provides funding to environmental groups on a project-by-project basis. "We don't give them money and let them do whatever they want," Bormann said.


David Hogan, another official with the Southwest Center for Biological Diversity, denied that the Pew foundation had anything directly or indirectly to do with Hitt's ouster - or with setting the alliance's agenda. "Pew has had almost no input into the forest alliance," Hogan said.


The triggering episode in Hitt's ouster was his dissatisfaction with a board decision to push forward with a project under which small-scale logging, land restoration and prescribed burns would take place on up to 20,000 acres of Southwestern national forests over the next five years.


According to Suckling, the purpose of the "demonstration project' - which would involve federal, state and university scientists - is to gain data about how to better manage Southwestern forests in the future.


To Hitt, and to John Talberth, also of Forest Guardians, the board's decision to go ahead with the project was a clear sign that the group would not support the Sierra Club's no-logging proposal. They also see the project itself as a step in the wrong direction.


"It's the beginning of going down the slippery slope of saving national forests by logging them," Talberth said.


One problem Hitt and Talberth have with the project - which is based in part on the ideas of Wallace Covington of Northern Arizona University (HCN, 11/13/95) - is that it calls for logging trees up to 16 inches in diameter.


Hitt says removing trees that large could harm wildlife habitat - and is at odds with the recommendations of state wildlife officials in the Southwest that only trees five inches in diameter should be logged to restore old-growth forests.


Alliance members said Hitt and Talberth have failed to recognize that the battle needs to shift from protecting old-growth forests to thinning pockets of forest that have grown unnaturally dense through decades of fire suppression.


"There is still some cutting (of old growth) going on out there, but overall the battle is largely won," Suckling said. "Our forests have other problems. There are too many thickets of small trees and something needs to be done about it."


Suckling also said Hitt and Talberth have a tendency to challenge too many Forest Service logging and controlled burn projects and need to focus more on land restoration activities and working with local communities. "Just to continually battle every project" can be counterproductive, Suckling said.


Removing someone of Hitt's stature from a group like the alliance would have been unthinkable a few years ago. But, according to Suckling and Henderson, Hitt's standing in the Southwestern environmental community slipped badly in the fall of 1995, when he pushed for restrictions on firewood gathering in northern New Mexico to protect the Mexican spotted owl. Suckling said most environmentalists in the Southwest didn't think the restrictions were necessary to protect the bird, but yielded to Hitt "because northern New Mexico was his back yard."


The restrictions ignited a firestorm of opposition from rural Hispanics and a blizzard of negative media coverage both locally and nationally (HCN, 2/3/97). The controversy culminated in a protest in Santa Fe in which both Hitt and Talberth were hung in effigy.


Soon after, the environmentalists backed down and the restrictions were eased.


Forest Guardians can be reached at 1413 Second St., Santa Fe, NM 87505 (505/988-9126). Southwest Center for Biological Diversity is at P.O. Box 17839, Tucson, AZ 85731 (520/733-1391).


* Keith Easthouse





The writer is an environmental reporter with the Santa Fe New Mexican.