After Last Year’s Santa Fe National Forest Wildfires, Forest Management Must be Reconsidered

Thinned and repeatedly burned area near the Santa Fe watershed Photo: Dee Blanco.

Three major wildfires were ignited on the Santa Fe National Forest last year due to US Forest Service prescribed burns escaping containment. First, on April 6, 2022, the Hermits Peak Fire was ignited by a broadcast prescribed burn that was set near Las Vegas, New Mexico during a spring high wind pattern, and quickly went out of control. Then, just three days later, on April 9, the Calf Canyon Fire broke out a few miles away, caused by fire escaping from incompletely extinguished slash piles, ignited as a part of Forest Service thinning/burning operations. These two fires joined together and became the 341,000 acre Hermit Peak/Calf Canyon Fire, the largest wildfire in New Mexico history. Less than two weeks later, on April 22, the Cerro Pelado Fire broke out in the Jemez Mountains, and ultimately burned 45,000 more acres. We were only recently informed by the Forest Service that this fire was also ignited due to a prescribed burn, again a smoldering slash pile from thinning/burning operations which escaped containment.

That’s approaching 400,000 acres burned in just one year in the Santa Fe National Forest, due to prescribed burns ignited by the Forest Service that went out of control. Several hundred homes burned down, watersheds and water supply were damaged, three people died in post-fire flooding, and rural communities were forever changed. There had been a prior prescribed burn escape in the Calf Canyon area a few years previous, and other near escapes. And, back in May of 2000, the National Park Service lost control of a broadcast prescribed burn that primarily burned in the Santa Fe National Forest – the Cerro Grande Fire. That fire burned 43,000 acres, 400 homes, and threatened the Los Alamos National Laboratory, where nuclear materials are stored.

Most of those who have lost homes and property in last year’s agency-caused wildfires have not been compensated. Significant restoration of watersheds and community infrastructure have not yet occurred. Lives and livelihoods of low-income rural residents are still on hold.

Fire is a natural component of southwestern forest ecology, and can provide substantial ecological benefit. However, these agency-caused wildfires are unprecedented and may be adding too much fire to our dry forests, in addition to damaging or even destroying communities and infrastructure. Unfortunately, the agency whose actions caused these fires refuses to seriously consider that the aggressive treatments they intend to carry out in our forests going forward may be too dangerous to implement in the current dry conditions – especially when prescribed burns are ignited during the spring, when high winds can arise at unpredictable times.

The agency states that 99.84% of prescribed burns stay within containment lines. This seems questionable, but the more important statistic is how much of our local forest and communities have been burned due to their forest management actions.

The Forest Service and the Greater Santa Fe Fireshed Coalition, a local forest management collaborative comprised of federal, state and city agencies, governmental bodies and other organizations, are working together on the planning and implementation of a large-scale and aggressive tree cutting and burning project focused on the mountains outside of Santa Fe – the Santa Fe Mountains Landscape Resiliency Project. This collaborative has been unwilling to significantly alter their forest management strategies and plans in the wake of these fires, and they are continuing to move forward with implementation of the project, almost as if the fires did not happen. They have chosen to largely ignore the intense opposition to the project plans from the local community and conservation organizations. They explain that last year’s wildfires, ignited by Forest Service fuels treatments, are proof that our forests need even more of the same type of treatments. Also, they tell us that climate change and fire suppression were the primary cause of the wildfires, and such fires would have happened whether they had ignited the burns or not. Almost certainly, they wouldn’t have.

The fires occurred because the Forest Service was conducting fuels treatments at a scale that is clearly unsafe in a warming and drying climate. In addition to large-scale broadcast prescribed burns, treatments include aggressive thin-from-below tree cutting, which requires subsequent burning of the many slash piles left behind. Often, over 90% of standing trees are cut down on forested landscapes that are “thinned.” Every tree cut means more piles of woody material that must be incinerated in pile burns. To burn so many piles requires utilizing sub-optimal burn windows, especially since the number of safer burn windows is decreasing as the climate gets warmer and drier.

The National Prescribed Fire Program Review, created in response to the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire, identifies as the basis of the problem a broad-based lack of agency capacity and problems with agency culture. According to the review, the agency has a serious shortage of specialized personnel, a lack of up-to-date equipment, a lack of appropriate models for implementing prescribed burns in a warming climate, and a lack of morale. Yet, the Forest Service committed last year to increasing fuels treatments in our national forests up to four times the current levels. This virtually guarantees another disaster. No wonder morale is low.

It’s time for our elected representatives to truly stand for our forests and our communities. With the exception of the Santa Fe County Commission, which has taken consistent action to protect our forests and communities, our elected representatives express outrage but then accept the agency continuing on essentially the same dangerous and destructive path. It’s time for rethinking of forest management policy, from the roots up.

It’s also time we hold the Forest Service accountable for a lack of transparency. The Forest Service, by its own admission, knew weeks before the Calf Canyon Fire broke out that the Calf Canyon pile burns were spreading. Yet it took almost two months after the wildfire ignited for officials to tell us that the smoldering slash piles caused the Calf Canyon Fire. And it’s taken over a year for the Forest Service to announce that the Cerro Pelado Fire also was caused by an escaped pile burn.

An independent investigation and analysis must be done of last year’s massive wildfires caused by prescribed burn escapes in the Santa Fe National Forest, and it should be initiated and facilitated by our elected representatives. Although the Forest Service did release analyses of the causes and lessons learned of the Hermits Peak and Cerro Pelado Fires, they have not so far released any analysis of the Calf Canyon Fire. A much deeper analysis is required of all the 2022 escaped prescribed burn fires together  –  one that reconsiders the basic assumptions of forest management in the Santa Fe National Forest, utilizing a range of scientific perspectives, including conservation science. All cutting and burning treatments must be paused until this process is complete. Then, we must develop a conservation strategy for managing our forests in a warming climate, which allows for fire in the ecosystem, yet focuses primarily on retaining moisture in the forest instead of drying it out and damaging soils by cutting and burning vast swathes of trees.

The frequency and size of prescribed burn treatments must be reconsidered. The Santa Fe Mountains Landscape Resiliency Project plan is to re-burn treated areas every 5-10 years. Forest Service and US Geological Survey scientists, along with other affiliated scientists, have studied tree scar samples from various locations in the Santa Fe National Forest in order to determine historical fire return intervals. They have concluded that fires burned in the Santa Fe Mountains Project area on average every 5-15 years.

However, in 2017, ecologist Bill Baker published a research article describing an analysis he undertook of numerous fire scar studies done across several dry western forests, and he found that in most cases, the fire return intervals were much longer than the Forest Service estimated, often several times longer. He estimated that the average fire return interval in the Santa Fe watershed for ponderosa pine to be 37.8 years, and for dry mixed conifer, 74.7 years. So far, a revised estimate of the fire return intervals specific to the Santa Fe Mountains Project area has not been done, but if historical fire intervals are going to play a part in project planning, then this should be done. If Baker’s estimates are correct, then the Forest Service and their collaborators’ estimates of historical fire return intervals are highly inaccurate. Also, the Forest Service has not sufficiently considered to what degree historical rates of burning are relevant in a warmer and drier climate.

Over-burning has numerous ecological impacts, including lack of tree regeneration, impacts on forest understory, and loss of wildlife habitat. Such over-burning creates the kind of unhealthy ecological conditions we often see in cut and burned areas of the Santa Fe National Forest — dry, savanna-like novel landscapes that no longer look like what we consider to be forest.

Many relatively untreated areas of the Santa Fe National Forest have a fairly robust understory. There is an ongoing debate about how much understory existed in this area historically. There is no documentation or studies which provide clear answers to this question. When trees are cut aggressively, the understory is largely eradicated during the process, and soils are disturbed and compacted. When prescribed burns are applied at too-frequent intervals, there is not enough time between burns for shrub understories to substantially return, even though some grasses will grow. Baker states in his 2017 article, “Fires that are too frequent can reduce the ecological roles of the forest floor in replenishing soil nutrients and organic matter, enhancing absorption of water and nutrients, and providing habitat for microbial communities, potentially reducing long-term forest productivity.” A healthy understory helps soil to hold moisture, which supports an increase in moisture in the vegetation, making it more fire resistant. Baker also points out that insufficient low-severity fire could result in a decrease of understory diversity and increase fire severity. However, suppressing the understory through overly frequent prescribed fire does not foster healthy forests, nor necessarily make forests more fire-resistant.

Due to the complexity of the current forest management situation in the Santa Fe National Forest, and of the risks to surrounding communities, a thorough cost/benefit analysis is required to determine what are the best forest management strategies going forward. Simple answers do not exist, and most answers will lie in a vast landscape of compromise because our forest has already been heavily impacted by human interventions including logging, prior thinning, human-caused fire, grazing, excessive forest roads, and off-road vehicles. Wildland/urban interface homes present challenges to allowing natural fires to burn. We should not be moving forward with massive forest management projects, especially in light of multiple prescribed burn escapes, without an up-to-date and cohesive forest conservation strategy. Such a strategy would likely involve cutting many fewer acres, leaving much more tree canopy in thinned areas, burning at much longer intervals, limiting prescribed burns to the late fall when conditions are safer for burning, and allowing natural wildfires to burn when safe to do so.

A conservation strategy to hold moisture in the soils would likely include earthworks such as carefully implemented contour felling, berms, swales and check dams. Also, promoting beaver habitation is very effective for holding water in the ecosystem. Damaged riparian areas should be repaired and replanted, but without aggressive removal of conifers or applying herbicides. De-commissioning unneeded forest roads is important, as roads cause water run-off and erosion. Dried out soils and damaged mycorrhizal fungi could be restored. Microclimates should be considered instead of broad-stroke approaches across large landscapes. Our challenge is to find ways to restore our forest in holistic ways that support the integrity and function of the entire ecosystem, which would result in the forest becoming wetter, cooler and more resistant to fire.

The science is clear that the best way to protect communities is with home hardening and treating landscape from the home outward. The relevant area for home protection from fire is approximately a hundred foot radius around homes. Clear egresses from wildland/urban interface communities are also important, and in communities with only one egress, creating a second egress could save lives.

Additionally, the health impacts of an ever-increasing amount of smoke in the air from Forest Service and other land management agencies burning our forests has to be seriously considered. Residents of the Santa Fe area have been communicating the severity of the impacts on their health from so much burning by virtually every means possible — through opinion pieces and letters to the editor in local papers, radio interviews, testimony at both County Commission and City Council meetings, emails written and calls made to the Forest Service and elected representatives, and in comments during Forest Service forest “restoration” project public comment periods. They have been largely unheeded. It is essential that the Forest Service documents and maintains an awareness of the real-world health impacts on the public caused by the smoke they generate, and adjust their actions accordingly.

It is unacceptable that the agency did not once mention the potential for escaped prescribed burns in the inadequate Santa Fe Mountains Project environmental assessment — even though the document was revised and reissued after the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire. The agency apparently believed it’s so unlikely that they would cause another wildfire that they didn’t have to consider it in relation to this project. They must rescind the project decision and consider the potential for escaped prescribed burns specific to the landscape and climate of the project area, within a comprehensive environmental impact statement (EIS).

A genuine conservation alternative should be developed and evaluated within an EIS. This should be a product of full collaboration between all interested agencies, organizations and the public, and should employ conservation scientists. Conservation organizations and the public need to have much more input in project plans than they have been allowed so far, and the existing forest management paradigm must be transformed, since it is clearly not working.

An EIS must also be completed for an even larger cutting/burning project proposed on the west side of the Santa Fe National Forest, in the Jemez Mountains northwest of Los Alamos — The Encino Vista Landscape Restoration Project.This project was temporarily put on hold due to the aftereffects of the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire, but the analysis process is due to recommence soon.

To do anything less than a comprehensive EIS for both projects is gross negligence at this point. Too much harm has already been done to the Santa Fe National Forest, and to our communities. How many more agency-caused wildfires will we tolerate while the Forest Service and their collaborators continue to try to get a fundamentally flawed and outdated forest management paradigm to work? Elected representatives – stand for our local forest and communities, and urge the Forest Service to comprehensively reconsider their forest management strategies.

This ecologically damaging and dangerous forest management dilemma is playing out, in various ways, across the west. It’s time for a fundamental and comprehensive rethinking of forest management across all forests in a changing climate – and to embrace a paradigm that allows for fire to maintain its natural role in our forests, but does not impose heavy-handed intervention onto forest structure and processes. And one that acknowledges that forests are living, breathing systems that are too complex to be acted upon aggressively without causing substantial repercussions. First, do no harm


Sarah Hyden has been working to protect the Santa Fe National Forest for well over a decade. She was a co-founder of the Santa Fe Forest Coalition and was the WildEarth Guardians’ Santa Fe National Forest Advocate. In 2019, she co-founded The Forest Advocate, a not-for-profit organization dedicated to protection of the Santa Fe National Forest and all western forests. The Forest Advocate maintains an active website that publishes forest advocacy news and resources —