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.

BLM to develop EISs for fuel breaks and fuel reduction

The programmatic Environmental Impact Statements would streamline approvals for projects

Above: A fuel break created along a road by mowing. BLM photo.

(Originally published at 9:55 a.m. MDT December 30, 2017)

In May the U.S. Geological Survey began an effort to study fuel breaks in the Great Basin to evaluate their effectiveness as well as the ecological costs and benefits. On December 22 the Bureau of Land Management announced the agency is proposing to develop two Environmental Impact Statements (EIS) for BLM lands in the states of Idaho, Oregon, Nevada, California, Utah, and Washington. One will cover the construction of fuel breaks while the other is for fuels reduction and rangeland restoration.

The process is expected to result in two programmatic EIS documents that would cover projects region-wide to gain efficiencies in subsequent National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analyses. The blanket approval will mean that individual landscape-scale fuel breaks and fuel reduction proposals will only need minor additional environmental reviews to proceed.

Fuel breaks are intended to interrupt the continuity of vegetation making it easier to control or stop the spread of wildfires. There is no guarantee of success since wind-blown burning embers can be lofted hundreds or thousands of feet ahead of a flaming front, crossing the breaks.

fuel break herbicide aerial application
An aircraft sprays herbicide on a BLM fuelbreak. BLM image.

Landscape-scale fuel reduction would slow the spread and reduce the intensity and resistance to control of a wildfire making it easier for firefighters to keep a small fire from becoming a megafire. Another goal of the vegetation modification is to restore the rangelands habitat in order to provide multiple use opportunities for user groups and habitat for plants and animals. The projects are designed to reduce the threat of habitat loss from fires and restore rangeland’s productivity while “supporting the western lifestyle”, the BLM said in a statement.

The public has until February 20, 2018 to submit comments related to the programmatic EISs by any of the following methods:

  • Website:
  • Email:
  • Fax: 208–373–3805.
  • Mail: Jonathan Beck, 1387 S. Vinnell Way, Boise, ID 83709
BLM fuel break
BLM fuel break. BLM photo.