Wilderness and the Fear of Fire

Photograph Source: Glenn Beltz – CC BY 2.0

The roar of chain saws was noticeably absent this fall in the forests near where I live in Santa Fe. We can thank the Mexican spotted owl, a courageous federal judge who exposed Forest Service misdeeds and decades of advocacy by WildEarth Guardians, successor to the scrappy advocacy group I founded 30 years ago.

The bad news is that this de facto wilderness is not permanently protected as congressionally designated wilderness. Worse yet, the Forest Service is rushing to approve a misguided plan to “fire-proof” nearly 80 square miles from the ski basin to near Pecos. According to Dr. Chad Hanson, continuous logging/thinning/burning will kill more trees than it prevents from being killed by wildfire. This will render the forest’s wilderness character invalid, a reason I suspect the plan will be quickly approved.

Less than 4 percent of the continental United States retains its primeval character and influence. For what remains locally, we can thank our eccentric community of artists and writers who somehow managed to cajole and at times embarrass federal officials into pausing long enough for the timber industry to grow impatient with delay. The result was that big trees fell by the millions in the more accessible Jemez Mountains (the site of recent large fires) while Santa Fe’s unroaded headwaters forests were unofficially set aside for their scenic beauty.

Like the current owl injunction, this was a temporary victory (“State, Forest Service team up on stewardship,” Nov. 15). We now need the permanent protection for the awe and grandeur that wild landscapes and ecosystems inspire. As always, the biggest obstacle is the Forest Service and their collaborators who strenuously oppose wilderness designation for the roadless lands buffering the Pecos Wilderness. The recently released Santa Fe National Forest plan recommends no wilderness protection near town. Overall, only 2.9 percent of the forest’s nearly 900,000 remaining roadless acres are recommended for wilderness.

Instead of preserving wilderness, the Forest Service is busy trying to jump-start a rebranded timber industry that targets the few, small wild places that remain. In 2006 Wild Watershed, the Multi-Chemical Sensitivities Taskforce and others appealed the local ranger’s plan to clear most trees and begin regular burning on the slopes above Black Canyon campground. We won this internal review since they disregarded the effects of clearing and burning to the wilderness-quality roadless forests that encompass 93 percent of the nearly 2000 acre project.

Four years later, the Forest Service issued a draft environmental assessment that was never finalized due to opposition by the Obama administration. That quickly changed when Donald Trump assumed office. The Hyde Park Wildland Urban Interface project was “categorically excluded” from detailed environmental considerations despite the presence of endangered owl habitat and wilderness-quality roadless forests. Congress had taken away the right to administratively appeal, so in May 2018 we sued the Forest Service in federal court.

This case hinges on whether Congress gave the Forest Service discretion to do a detailed environmental review or, as the agency argues, a 2003 Bush-era law mandates quick approval without taking a hard look at potential impacts. The Forest Service intentionally misrepresented the law that plainly gives the agency a choice.

They could have protected the extraordinary biological values of these roadless forests by documenting the relevant science and considering reasonable alternatives — in effect, looking before they leaped. Instead they hid behind the fiction of a congressional mandate to avoid evaluating impacts.

Wild forests don’t reappear once cut and plundered. We have just one chance to preserve the irreplaceable. That time is now.

A version of this column first appeared in The New Mexican.

Sam Hitt is the founder of Wild Watershed and president of the Santa Fe Forest Coalition.