Watershed managers in northern New Mexico are mounting a pre-emptive strike this spring with a forest-thinning project that aims to reduce wildfire risk.

In February, the Forest Service began a thinning project in the Santa Fe National Forest, which surrounds the city’s municipal water supply. The Santa Fe Watershed Association, a local grassroots group, secured $430,000 through Clean Water Act “Section 319” grants for the project.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) distributes Section 319 money for water-quality projects, such as fencing cows out of streams and planting trees along streambeds. New Mexico has used this money for thinning and prescribed burning over the past five years, and Tim Herfel of the EPA calls the use of funds “proactive.”

But Bryan Bird of the National Forest Protection Alliance, a network of activists that opposes commercial logging on public lands, says the use of Clean Water Act funds for the project is suspect. Heavy equipment use, new skid trails and piles of logging debris could all increase both fire risk and water pollution, he says.

Former Forest Service advisor Chris Wood, who now works for Trout Unlimited, says more appropriate funding is available for reducing fuel loads in the woods, and he questions the benefits of thinning vs. leaving the forest alone. Says Wood: “You’d hope the treatment would be restorative (rather) than speculative.”