Protecting our forests, our homes and ourselves

February 24, 2019 GMT

In recent years, I have tried to help protect the Santa Fe National Forest from intensive tree thinning projects. Then, when new growth starts to come back, it’s usually burned off in prescribed burns. Now the U.S. Forest Service is planning to do these types of thinning treatments over 50,000 acres of the Santa Fe National Forest from Glorieta to north of Tesuque, a large-scale project called the Santa Fe Mountains Landscape Resiliency Project. The stated purpose is to moderate fire behavior and improve forest health.

Previously thinned areas, that sometimes appear so denuded as to look almost like parking lots, are not healthier forests, they are crippled ecosystems — dried out, barren, soils eroded and compacted, and wildlife habitat disrupted and damaged. Most fire scientists believe these treatments don’t moderate fire behavior in the most extreme fires, and that some high intensity fire has a natural and productive place in the ecosystem


It’s time for us to ask the fundamental question — do we have the right to do this? Do we have the right to destroy in a few weeks or months what took nature centuries to create? Do we have sufficient knowledge to effectively redesign the ecosystem? Does the natural world have a right to exist in an intact and functional form?

The U.S. Forest Service officials believe they are restoring the forest to a historical structure and fire regime, and that they know what that is. They now acknowledge they made many mistakes in the past, including widespread logging, grazing, excessive fire suppression and uncontrolled off-road vehicles use, leaving parts of the forest unbalanced and damaged. But they believe that this time they can get it right and know what they’re doing to repair decades of damage.

When they come into forests with masticators, bulldozers, large trucks and chainsaw crews, and with a very heavy hand alter the ecosystem into something they believe is “healthy,” they aren’t repairing the problem. They are creating a much larger problem, and one our forests may not be able to recover from in our warming and drying climate. Our Southwestern forests are becoming increasingly dry and fragile and cannot tolerate such severe impacts. Historical forests were abundantly alive, not sterilized ecosystems.

Newer research shows that trees live as communities and are connected to each other in networks under the soil, sharing nutrients and life support. Trees are clearly alive, not inanimate objects. The forest ecosystem can and does thin itself through its own natural processes, including bark beetles, drought stress and naturally occurring fire.


Fire science has proven that to keep homes in forest communities safer from fire, only selective thinning is necessary in a 100-foot radius around homes. That’s reasonably balancing our human needs with our obligation to protect the natural world from harm by our own actions. There are other targeted ways we can protect whatever is important to us — very limited thinning in specific small areas, water runoff engineering to protect key locations from post-fire flooding, and allowing natural fires to burn when safe to reduce excessive undergrowth.

That way, we can still leave the forest mostly intact, and it can continue to be a living, sacred place of beauty we can enjoy.

We have the right to fully participate in the planning of this project. Tell the Forest Service and elected representatives that we, the collective guardians of our forest, require an environmental impact statement that fully analyzes the damaging environmental consequences of intensive tree thinning and analyzes a range of viable alternatives.

Sarah Hyden is a forest protection advocate with WildEarth Guardians.