Forest Management: Let’s Reclaim Our Intentions

Cerro Pelado Fire in the Santa Fe National Forest, caused by a Forest Service escaped prescribed burn. Photo: US Forest Service.

Dear fellow conservationists,

I recently came across the 2022 article, “Crowning Fury,” about the effects of the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire, which was ignited by two separate escaped Forest Service prescribed burns. In it, Alicia Inez Guzmán describes the effects the fire had on a rural community in Mora County, New Mexico. Pola Lopez, whose family’s entire 160 acres was burned to black poles, said that she was “brokenhearted by the loss of the old-growth forest, the ‘grandfather trees,’ as she calls them.” Members of her community felt “defenseless and lost” as the fire burned through, and are now trying to reclaim their lives and livelihoods in the fire’s aftermath, with little help so far from the federal government.

I know the wildfire analyst who is assisting the Lopez family with their claims concerning the damages to their land. He said there are grasses and weeds growing back, but no living trees for a large distance and therefore no clear seed source for conifer regeneration.

This is the result of USFS forest management policy truly run amok. I believe this issue is being understated by almost everyone, except by those who are living it. Many residents impacted by the fire are now periodically experiencing post-fire flooding, which is causing damage to waterways and erosion. And their lives have been turned up-side-down.

Time, maybe many decades, will bring some kind of regeneration, but due to the warming climate I have no reason to believe that in some areas regeneration will necessarily include substantial amounts of conifers. Many are concerned that some sections of the fire scar may type convert to predominantly shrubland. Invasive weeds are often taking hold.

Supporting the Forest Service in continuing with forest treatments, both cutting and prescribed burns, at anything resembling the levels they have been attempting to implement, will almost certainly lead to more of this. Despite an acknowledged lack of agency capacity and a steadily decreasing number of safer burn windows due to the warming climate, last year the Forest Service committed itself to increasing fuels treatments up to 4X current levels. Also, the efforts by the agency to implement fuels treatments with no NEPA at all, by expanding and even igniting fires during wildfire containment and suppression activities, can only lead to even more adverse consequences, some catastrophic. This is occurring across the West.

The Forest Service’s primary justifications for these wildfire expansions and ignitions is that they are being done for resource management objectives and for firefighter safety. During New Mexico’s 2022 Black Fire, the second largest fire in state history, the Forest Service ignited fire with helicopters and drones over 10 miles to the south of main fire, and 6 miles to the north (this has been verified by the agency.) The size of the fire was approximately doubled. Larger fires often mean more danger for both firefighters and local residents, along with more collateral damage.

The agency caused the ignition of wildfires that burned over 387,000 acres in the Santa Fe National Forest during the past decade, compared with less than than 57,000 acres burned from fires ignited by all other causes during the same period. This should be enough to require the Forest Service to stop entirely what they are doing until a rational approach can be developed, appropriate for the current and future climate. Anything less seems unreasonable to me. The conditions that caused these events could easily play out in any national forest. The agency’s stated purpose is to moderate fire behavior, protect communities and to increase forest health. I think it’s clear they are failing, and what occurred in the Santa Fe National Forest last year is an illustration of what can happen when an agency has gone out-of-control in response to their forest management mandates. It’s a lot about quotas.

Whatever purposes the conservation community has hoped to accomplish by supporting fuels treatments (thin-from-below and prescribed burns), and by supporting allowing wildfires to burn for resource benefit, have been almost entirely co-opted by the Forest Service. What is being done to our forest by the agency, without knowing what the effects will be, is just wrong – and damaging communities is clearly also wrong. We should not in any way be complicit by supporting strategies that may result in the severe multi-generational impacts which agency-ignited wildfires such as the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire can have on communities, especially low-income traditional communities.

Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire burn scar. Photo: Patrick Lohman, Source NM.

Isn’t it possible the Forest Service has taken a beneficial strategy (genuinely allowing natural wildfires to burn when safe to do so, and utilizing limited prescribed fire when/where it is not safe to allow wildfires to burn) and turned it entirely on its head, causing destruction? By destruction I mean purposely or recklessly igniting wildfires given that we don’t know what will regenerate, and in the process killing endangered and sensitive animal and plant species, burning old growth, damaging wildlife habitat, precipitating post-fire flooding and damage to waterways and acequias, damaging infrastructure, and devastating livelihoods and lives. Three people died from post-fire flooding as a direct result of the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire. The agency is also in process of putting the final nails in the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) coffin by circumventing it as they hugely abuse emergency authority during wildfire suppression, and ignite fire miles away.

A cost/benefit analysis of Forest Service burning practices must be done, which includes consideration of aggressive thinning, as many slash piles get left behind which must be burned. Such analysis should be as free as possible from prior assumptions and biases. Why is there such a strong focus on the small “fire deficit” relative to the average historical fire return? What is the downside of having less than average historical amounts of fire on the landscape? The FS has stated that the purpose of their interventions is to avoid megafires by igniting “good fires.” But since, at times, they are igniting full-fledged wildfires and megafires by their interventions, that purpose has effectively gone out the window.

Perhaps we should not try to close the “fire deficit.” Too much goes wrong when we try to “fix” the ecosystem, and problems often seem to get worse overall instead of better. What we do know is that as the climate becomes warmer and drier, wildfire will naturally increase. We just need to get out of the way when we can. The collateral damages from the Forest Service’s ever-increasing intentional burning spree may be far worse than any impacts from a historical fire deficit.

And how do we know that in our warming and drying climate less than the average historical fire return isn’t optimal? Wildfire reduces tree canopy cover, at least for quite awhile. Tree canopy cover holds moisture into the ecosystem and reduces the drying effects of the warming climate. Our strategy should be to do everything we can to support more moisture in the ecosystem which would result in vegetation being naturally more fire resistant, and that would include not purposely putting even more fire onto the landscape that substantially burns tree canopy.

The Forest Service’s current efforts to “put fire on the landscape” has the appearance of a war on the natural world, as they utilize new “artillery” capable of putting incredible amounts of heat on the ground, including drones and helicopters that drop incendiary devices over large tracts of landscape during fire suppression and containment activities, sometimes many miles from the fire front. These actions belie any kind of “natural” wildfire regime.

We have little input at this point on how intentional firing activities are conducted. When the Forest Service ignited the Las Dispensas prescribed burn during a spring high-winds pattern, which caused the Hermits Peak Fire, part of the largest wildfire in New Mexico history, the locals’ protestations were ignored. When the Forest Service expands wildfires anywhere from double to 100X the original size during fire suppression and containment operations, effectively as fuels treatments, it is not done with any kind of NEPA analysis process or with public input. Forest management strategies supported and condoned by the conservation community have been hijacked, and taken to an extreme. A strategy that is beneficial can become destructive when excessively and recklessly applied.

Smokey Bear is so confused at this point he is in danger of having a mental breakdown. The Forest Service has gone from preventing and suppressing wildfires, to allowing fire to burn for resource benefit, to deliberately or recklessly igniting wildfires, in an effort to put more fire on the landscape. We need to be clear about what we actually want. Do we want major wildfires, including megafires, or not? Even though some high severity fire is natural on the landscape historically, I think the answer to that question is —  we should not want them to the extent that we acquiesce while the Forest Service ignites and deliberately expands wildfires. We will have enough wildfires, including high severity fire, without the agency igniting them.

Conservation organizations and scientists should reclaim their original intentions from the Forest Service, since the agency has turned them into destruction. It’s gone too far to say it’s partly right, and maybe just needs some moderation. And although the Santa Fe National Forest has recently been the epicenter of the damage, impacts will most likely increase across the West.

With the warming and drying climate, and with a multitude of other stresses on forest ecosystems, the best course is less is more — much less. We cannot actually fix ecosystems, we can only support their natural healing process, which will adjust to current conditions as best as possible. We have strategies that can help keep forests cooler and wetter, in order to increase the fire-resistance of vegetation. Allowing some wildfires to burn naturally when safe to do so can help to bring forests to a state of ecological balance. It’s all an experiment now, so interventions, including deliberately putting fire on the landscape, should be carefully considered within a comprehensive NEPA analysis process, and be light handed, site specific and limited.

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 —