Collaboration may prevent conflagration in Santa Fe

Coalition's thinning-and-burning plan starts this spring

 

SANTA FE, N.M. - Like many environmentalists in the West today, Paige Grant is working at cutting trees rather than hugging them. To the dark-haired hydrologist with the Santa Fe Watershed Association, the ponderosa pine forests in the Santa Fe watershed are as ready for fire as a pile of crumpled newspaper and kindling. They must be thinned and burned, Grant believes, with a careful ecological monitoring program.

"This is a tree epidemic," she says, as we walk by the tangled forests.

Many of the trees are 80 years old and should be a foot in diameter, she says, but they are as thin as ax handles.

Yet Grant hopes this is about to change.

Over the past two years, the Santa Fe National Forest has worked with Grant and a coalition of citizens and environmental organizations to plan a 10-year, 7,270-acre thinning and burning project. The aim is to reduce fire hazard in the watershed and protect the city of Santa Fe from the type of runaway fire that devastated nearby Los Alamos two years ago (HCN, 7/31/00: In New Mexico, a surprising proposal rises from the flames). Such collaborative efforts are now characteristic of ponderosa pine restoration in the West, but a handful of environmentalists still wonder if the Forest Service is going too far, too fast in trying to return ponderosa forests to the way they were a century ago.

"Even noncommercial cutting can be destructive," says Sam Hitt, long-time leader of Forest Guardians, now the director of Wild Watershed.

The Partners Plan

The Santa Fe River winds down from the Pecos Wilderness, fills two reservoirs that supply almost half the city's water, then becomes just a small stream that flows through the city and into the Rio Grande. In the summer of 2000, the horizons of the watershed framed two of the country's most destructive fires, the Viveash and Cerro Grande. Santa Fe residents feared their forests would burn down and the steep hillsides erode into the reservoirs.

But plans were already being made to prevent such a conflagration. Shortly before the 2000 fires, the Forest Service had enlisted a group of concerned citizens, scientists and environmentalists to study the watershed and help reduce fire hazard.

"We wanted to work with people rather than fight appeals," says Charlie Jankiewicz, ecosystem staff officer with the Santa Fe National Forest. For a little over two years, a group of 30 people met monthly with the agency to hammer out a set of recommendations. Ultimately, it was "a regional success story," says ecologist and meeting participant Melissa Savage, because the participants influenced the agency's plan.

The Santa Fe Watershed Partners Group, as it was called, persuaded the Forest Service not to harvest any trees commercially, even those by the access road into the watershed, because of the noise and congestion of trucks hauling wood. Logging communities didn't complain, because the thin trees are of little commercial value. Starting this spring, the Forest Service will fell trees up to 16 inches in diameter, lay the felled trunks along the slope contours to decompose, then light small controlled fires to consume needles and branches. Trees will be cut primarily by feller-buncher machines, except on steep slopes where chainsaws will be used; snags and young trees will remain. Forest density will be reduced to between 50-100 trees per acre from 400-1000 trees per acre. The southern ridge of the watershed will be more heavily cut into fuel breaks, up to a quarter mile wide, to keep a crown fire from dropping down into the canyon.

The Partners group also recruited a team of 14 independent scientists to develop a way to track the ecological impacts of the treatments. Grant's organization, the Santa Fe Watershed Association, received a Clean Water Act grant to coordinate the annual monitoring program and ensure that the results are used to adjust the cutting and burning treatments. "Our relationship with the Forest Service," Grant says, "is 'trust but verify.'"

Not everyone a partner

Some environmentalists are wary. Sam Hitt fears the project will reduce the forest to just dots of trees, many of those scorched red and black by prescribed fire. He points to a trial treatment the Forest Service carried out a year ago in the same watershed, in which trees were piled rather than left scattered and the burn was set late enough that trees had already started growing. The fires killed up to 40 percent of the standing trees, including some up to 28 inches in diameter. The Forest Service says this treatment was just a learning experiment. But Hitt warns that the agency will have even less control over the planned 400-acre treatment than it had on the four-acre trial.

The proposed treatment will denude the watershed, he says, causing the very erosion the agency hopes to prevent. Hitt, whose group is considering a lawsuit against the agency, wants the Service to emulate what the City of Santa Fe did on 50 acres it owns in the watershed, cutting trees under six inches in diameter and placing them on hillsides to check erosion. He would also like to see pruning on the lower branches of trees to keep ground fires from climbing up the trunks.

Scientists with experience in forest restoration say projects should proceed cautiously, because the long-term impacts of dramatically changing the forest structure are unknown. Bill Romme of Colorado State University is a participant in both the Santa Fe watershed project and the Ponderosa Pine Partnership, a county-federal partnership to restore ponderosa forests in southern Colorado. Romme encourages land managers to restore the open structure and regular surface fires of old ponderosa pine forests. But he says it's a mistake to be too aggressive and "try to make today's forests exactly like they were in 1850." Researchers don't know what every ponderosa forest was like then, he warns.

"We shouldn't measure restoration just by looks, by the size and spacing of trees," agrees Dennis Martinez of the Society of Ecological Restoration. "We need to measure restoration by ecological criteria such as soil quality and wildlife and plant diversity."

Grant admits that forest restoration is a large-scale experiment. "That's why we have the monitoring program," she says. "We're learning by doing."

Former HCN intern Bryan Foster writes from Santa Fe, New Mexico.

YOU CAN CONTACT ...

  • Paige Grant, Santa Fe Watershed Association, 505/820-1696;
  • Sam Hitt, Wild Watershed, 505/438-1057;
  • Charlie Jankiewicz, Santa Fe National Forest, 505/438-7828.

Copyright © 2002 HCN and Bryan Foster

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