County Commissioners urge USFS to conduct EIS on 50,000-acre fuel treatment project in New Mexico

Santa Fe National Forest

Map Santa Fe Mountains Landscape Resiliency Project
Map of the Santa Fe Mountains Landscape Resiliency Project.

The Board of County Commissioners of Santa Fe County in New Mexico passed a resolution Tuesday urging the U.S. Forest Service and the Santa Fe National Forest to conduct a full Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) for a planned very large fuel management project.

The 50,566-acre Santa Fe Mountains Landscape Resiliency Project would involve prescribed fire and vegetation thinning treatments on 36,680 acres to improve ecosystem resilience by reducing stand density, stand continuity, and stand homogeneity and increase a diverse forest structure at a landscape scale. At least 750 acres would be treated each year with manual or mechanical vegetation thinning and no more than 4,000 acres per year would be treated by the use of prescribed fire during a 15- to 20-year project time frame.

The Forest Service went through the much less complicated Environmental Assessment (EA) process, which included the draft EA, public outreach, and accepting comments, then issued the Finding of No Significant Impact (FONSI) which they feel enables the implementation of the project.

But after three prescribed burning projects on the Santa Fe National Forest got out of control since 2018 and had to be converted to wildfires, some of the locals are worried about future projects on the forest.

The current 341,735-acre Calf Canyon / Hermits Peak Fire is the result of two prescribed fires that escaped control earlier this year on the Santa Fe National Forest. One was a broadcast burn that crossed control lines during strong winds. The other originated from slash piles that were ignited in late January that continued burning for months. In mid-April one or more of those piles became very active during strong winds and merged with the other escaped fire on April 22. The fire has destroyed at least 400 homes, forced up to 18,000 people to evacuate their properties, and cost more than $248 million in firefighting expenses.

In 2018 another pile burning project on the Santa Fe escaped months after it was ignited and had to be converted to a wildfire. A Facilitated Learning Analysis found that “communication” and “prescribed fire preparation and risk” were common themes.

The Commissioners voted unanimously Tuesday for the USFS to go through the EIS procedure, which takes much longer than an EA and can be a costly process.

“Unacceptable risks are taken by personnel conducting planned burns because they are pressured to accomplish the mission,” the resolution states. “An EIS is appropriate because the EA … did not disclose or analyze the significant impacts to resources of an escaped intentional burn resulting from global heating and increased fine fuels.”

The resolution Requests the USFS cease all prescribed burns on the proposed project area “until the greater understanding and concomitant risk reduction provided by these reviews is in place.”

The USFS documents regarding the project can be found here.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Sarah.

Typos, let us know HERE, and specify which article. Please read the commenting rules before you post a comment.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

12 thoughts on “County Commissioners urge USFS to conduct EIS on 50,000-acre fuel treatment project in New Mexico”

  1. I understand their concern but this reflects a pretty fundamental misunderstanding of NEPA. People often call for an EIS thinking the analysis is more in-depth than an EA and while that can be true, it’s not a requirement. An EIS identifies significant impacts from a federal action while an EA identifies that there are no significant impacts from the action.

    An EA still has required public engagement processes and the opportunity to object to a decision. There is nothing magic about an EIS.

    1. EA’s require the analysis of cumulative effects.

      You want to grind treatment on federal lands to a stop. Make every decision require an EIS. Let’s spend all the funds on planning and not have any left for any implementation.

      The county commissioners decision is uninformed and ill advised.

    2. There was some limited public engagement, but it was very pro-forma. The public strongly objected to the project as proposed in both the scoping and draft EA comments and almost all comments called for an EIS to be completed.

      This project has substantial significant impacts, including the risk of escaped prescribed burns. Burns are planned to occur right up to WUI property lines. The smoke from such frequent prescribed burns in the SFNF has seriously impacted public health. Project areas where treatments have occurred look barren, dry and ecologically damaged.

      I wrote in Santa Fe Mountain Project scoping comments (long before the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire) “Every time a fire is started in the forest, there are risks of the fire spreading, especially in the SFNF where winds can arise quickly and sometimes unexpectedly.
      The Agency should evaluate the probability of a broadcast prescribed burn precipitating a fire in the SFNF.”
      This was not done, not responded to, not even an explanation as to why the USFS chose not to respond to that comment. That explanation is required.

      The EA was carried out utilizing the condition-based approach. Therefore, we know very little about what the USFS will actually do. Condition-based approach means most of the planning and analysis will occur after the project decision has been made, when the public can not longer have any real input into what is done. This is not in accordance with NEPA.

      Now we are waiting for decisions from Regional re the various objections that have been filed.

    3. Frank, Frank, Frank
      First off were you on the Gila Project fire this year? Secondly were you on the Calf Canyon wildfire?
      I doubt it- you are in your cubicle at 12AM or somewhere blasting the Forest Service over what we do. You are probably doing some NEPA analysis and its eating your lunch, so your venting at everyone and everything.
      What are you doing reading this material at 12 AM? Maybe you should go out on an fire assignment and help the cause instead of pointing fingers and nay saying, its really annoying. We like to see your points of view but, in a professional and creative way. Also can you back up your allegations on fire operations for the Gila Prescribed (black fire) project fire you mentioned please. Also can you give an example of a shotty EA, that your mentioning and attach it to your words. Thanks Frank don’t be frank any more.

      1. I can give an example of a shoddy EA for Frank……the Santa Fe Mountains Project EA. It utilized condition-based approach, and no one could know really what the USFS intended to do beyond the vaguest broad strokes, if that. They had a map of potential thinning and burning units, and it stated that treatments could be either inside or outside the designated units. Which means they could be anywhere, hopefully at least within the project area!

        They did not mention even once the probability of escaped prescribed fire even though they were requested to in scoping comments. That should at least be a part of the cost/benefit analysis.

        They utilized completely non-real world assumptions behind analysis. For the air quality analysis, they assumed — Case 1) that if they don’t do the project as proposed, the entire project area, which has two non-contiguous sections, would burn in it’s entirety in the next 10 years — Case 2) that if they did do the project as proposed, there would be zero fire in the project area in the next ten years. Neither is going to happen. So all their analysis re air quality amounts to a big nothing, just useless. You can bet similar assumptions underlie most of the EA analysis, but they weren’t so blatant as to state it in the document.

        So we are paying the price here for shoddy analysis, and lack of any genuine cost/benefit analysis.

        And so are firefighters. Imagine the health impacts they have endured from fighting the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire. I am still trying to recover from the health impacts myself, and of course I was not on the fire, just living some miles away.

  2. Fire-Industrial Complex needs to pull back from their slash and burn and burn and burn. What about the health effects of this never ending smoke pollution? Its that part of the ‘prescription”? Small particle invasion of our lungs?
    How about limiting human caused fires rather than adding to fires?

    1. This honesty means limiting public access by a great degree and changing our electrical infrastructure (the latter I’m all for).

  3. I’d say the citizens have every reason to be concerned. Piss-Poor track records won’t wash.J.W.

    1. JW:
      Long time, no see. I don’t think more paper is the answer. The problem was implementation failures…ultimately expertise was not up to the task. A more involved environmental evaluation won’t fix expertise. You and I know that training and experience are needed, but individuals have to develop their own expertise after being trained and experienced. Accountability for the failures needs to lead to personnel changes (fix the incumbents or change them).


Comments are closed.