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Groups appeal ruling over Santa Fe forest thinning plans

July 8, 2019

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — Environmentalists went back to court Monday in hopes of putting the brakes on plans to thin thousands of forested acres in the mountains bordering Santa Fe.

Wild Watershed and others filed their appeal with the 10th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Denver, arguing that a district court judge erred when allowing Santa Fe National Forest to move ahead with its plans for Pacheco Canyon and areas near Hyde Memorial State Park.

The plaintiffs contend that forest officials failed to analyze the cumulative and indirect effects of clearing and burning in the area.

“These projects are the first of what could become the most extensive ever slash and burn forestry near Santa Fe,” said Sam Hitt, founder of Wild Watershed and president of the Santa Fe Forest Coalition.

In approving the projects in 2018, forest managers said thinning and prescribed fire would be used to reduce risks posed by disease, insect infestation and catastrophic wildfire.

The work is part of a larger-scale effort to tackle problems that have resulted from decades of fire suppression and other land use practices in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, specifically the area that makes up the region’s watershed.

The environmentalists are concerned that the projects will end up targeting larger, older trees that are critical for many species and the long-term health of the forest.

They’re demanding an environmental assessment be done, saying the projects recommend clearing nearly two-thirds of the trees that are over 9 inches in diameter in mixed conifer forests and up to 90% of trees in ponderosa pine forests.

Officials with Santa Fe National Forest declined to comment on the pending litigation. They argued previously that an environmental review was not required because the parcels were part of an already designated insect and disease treatment area.

Forest officials have stated in court filings that neither project will involve cutting trees that are larger than 16 inches in diameter unless specific conditions, such as disease, require their removal. They also argued that thinning the crowded stands will enable the remaining trees to grow and become more resilient.

Forest spokeswoman Julie Anne Overton said Monday that in addition to improving wildlife habitat, the projects are aimed at protecting valuable infrastructure, such as Hyde Park Road and the Santa Fe municipal watershed.

In an opinion piece published Monday, U.S. Forest Service Southwest deputy regional forester Elaine Kohrman wrote that the agency needs to modernize how it complies with national environmental laws so it can better respond to wildfire, extended drought and insect infestations.

The agency has proposed a series of updates that, according to Kohrman, are based on years of experience and data.

“We found that in many cases, we do more analysis than necessary, slowing down important work to protect communities, livelihoods and resources,” she wrote.

The agency is accepting comments on the proposals through Aug. 12. Hitt and other environmentalists have been critical of the Trump administration’s efforts to roll back regulations.

As for the forests around Santa Fe, city, county and tribal officials have expressed concerns about the wildfire potential despite a wet winter and a favorable outlook for the monsoon season.

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