In New Mexico, a surprising proposal rises from the flames

  For 11 years, Santa Fe's Forest Guardians have been unflinching in their opposition to logging on the Southwest's national forests. But this June, they blinked. Following the Cerro Grande fire that swept through Los Alamos, Forest Guardians released its first-ever proposal for cutting trees.

The proposal calls for thinning and prescribed burning in Santa Fe's 17,000-acre watershed, patches of which are blanketed by a dense ponderosa pine forest, similar to the one that burned around Los Alamos. The plan calls for mulching flammable brush and branches and cutting some trees, but it would prohibit the Forest Service from selling any of the wood.

"We're taking a huge chance. We don't know if what we're proposing will work," says Forest Guardians founder Sam Hitt. "But we're trying to get out in front on ecological restoration."

The Guardians first have some catching up to do, according to conservationists and Forest Service staffers who have been planning for over a year to thin the watershed. "I got a copy of their report in the mail yesterday and I said, 'This sounds just like our proposal,' " says Santa Fe National Forest Planner Susan Bruin.

The upper Santa Fe watershed has been closed to the public since 1932, because heavy grazing, logging and recreation had denuded the steep slopes, allowing soil to wash into the town's drinking water.

The watershed's forest has seen a dramatic comeback over the last century, says Paige Grant, coordinator of the Santa Fe Watershed Association, but it is now susceptible to searing crown fires that could once again expose the land to erosion (HCN, 6/5/00: More trouble waits in the wings).

The Forest Service expects to finish a draft environmental impact statement on its thinning proposal this fall.

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