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Officials, environmentalists air concerns about Santa Fe National Forest plans

Santa Fe National Forest
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The Cuba Ranger Station

Conservationists, county commissioners and residents worried about the impact of planned thinning and burning on the Santa Fe National Forest expressed their concerns to forestry officials in an online community meeting Friday.

The meeting was sponsored by the Santa Fe Board of County Commissioners, WildEarth Guardians and The Forest Advocate.

Beth Ihle from the Santa Fe National Forest said that the forests are in a dire condition due to climate change, extended drought and dense plant growth.

"The current vegetation conditions are dangerous during wildfire for homeowners and they put firefighters at risk," she said, adding the planned work is much needed

"The current conditions are a daunting challenge and they won't go away on their own," she said.

The plan is outlined in the Santa Fe Mountains Landscape Resiliency Project. The US Forest Service plans to use mechanical thinning and prescribed burns to reduce the risk of large-scale fires on more than 50,000 acres near the Santa Fe Municipal Watershed, following the catastrophic Calf Canyon/Hermits Peak Fire which burned hundreds of homes and vast swaths of forest this year.

But many residents and advocates for wildlife and public health disagree with the plan, saying that even controlled burns and thinning could impact biodiversity, cause disease related to smoke inhalation or get out of control, as in the case of the state's largest recorded fire this summer, which destroyed hundreds of homes.

Peggy Darr, a biologist with the group Defenders of Wildlife, said that planned burns done too frequently would impact forest birds and other wildlife species.

"And of course, after what happened this past spring, significantly increased safety measures must be in place prior to conducting controlled burns," she said, adding that a middle ground of limited thinning was possible.

Many participants said the Forest Service should produce an Environmental Impact Statement, looking more closely at the impact of the proposed works. That echoes a resolution passed by the Santa Fe County Commission in summer which called for a full examination of environmental impact, the risks of fires getting out of control and an exploration of alternative measures.

Alice Fordham joined the news team in 2022 after a career as an international correspondent, reporting for NPR from the Middle East and later Latin America and Europe. She also worked as a podcast producer for The Economist among other outlets, and tries to meld a love of sound and storytelling with solid reporting on the community. She grew up in the U.K. and has a small jar of Marmite in her kitchen for emergencies.
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