Many survivors of the Hermits Peak-Calf Canyon Fire are in limbo as they await compensation for the Forest Service’s mistakes. 

Congress has set aside $4 billion to compensate survivors, businesses, local governments and nonprofits for damages in the 534-square-mile burn scar. But the claims process is long and complicated, and the vast majority of victims haven’t gotten anything yet.

Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire scar at Holman Hill
Photo: Patrick Lohman, Source, NM

Soil microbes, particularly a type called mycorrhizal fungi, help protect trees from harmful bacteria and fungi, and also help them to absorb nutrients, nitrogen, and water. Researchers have found that ecosystems at forest edges are more fragmented and disorganized. They warn that the more humans cut down intact forests, the more we may severe the foundational relationship between trees and the soil microbes that help keep trees alive.

Condition based management (CBM) is increasingly utilized by the Forest Service for fuels reduction project analysis. CBM often circumvents the environmental review framework by postponing site-specific analysis until the Forest Service implements the project, which effectively excludes the public from site-specific decisions, reduces transparency, and removes incentives for the agency to avoid harming resources.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Oregon announced that an order granting summary judgment in favor of the U.S. Forest Service was entered in a civil case challenging the agency’s commercial thinning of timber conducted as part of forest restoration efforts in the Fremont-Winema National Forest. The court found the Forest Service’s use of NEPA procedures to approve the projects was lawful and reasonably determined.

Lower amounts of snowfall presage dangers and pitfalls of pile burning and broadcast burning in a drying climate. At the same time, too much snow in parts of the Rockies, as well as health concerns about smoke, are limiting prescribed burning efforts in different ways.  As a result, the Forest Service’s recently announced “Wildfire Climate Strategy” is facing challenges.  

Santa Fe National Forest has released previously unavailable documents which were cited in the “Literature Cited” section of the project’s environmental assessment.  Topics include air quality, cultural resources, Inventoried Roadless Areas, and much more.  Browse the literature.

Wildfire Today: Findings from a new study led by Oregon State University contradicts the common narrative of destructive wildfire igniting on remote public land before spreading to threaten communities. The 22,000 fire study found that fires crossing jurisdictional boundaries are primarily caused by people on private property. 

Over 80 conservation groups, led by Oregon Wild, are calling on the Biden administration to “enact a strong, lasting rule that protects mature trees and forest stands from logging across federal lands as a cornerstone of US climate policy.” They state that the conservation of remaining older forests on federal public lands is one of the country’s most straightforward, impactful and cost-effective climate solutions.

Climate Forests
Chad Hanson and John Talberth write, referencing their new report, that “lawmakers need to do the math to ensure that money is not thrown to programs that increase greenhouse gas pollution and reduce our ability to overcome the climate crisis.”
US Forest Service

The New Mexico Forest and Watershed Restoration Institute will oversee creating a national database to gauge how well methods such as prescribed burns and tree thinning prevent wildfires and improve forests’ health. The effort will be funded by $20 million over five years out of the $5.4 billion allocated by the 2021 Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act towards wildfire mitigation and forest restoration.

George Wuerthner’s words from 2018 are resonating today more than ever: “As a generalization, there is overwhelming representation in such collaboratives by people who speak for the resource extraction industry or their sympathizers… Those advocating for Nature are seldom present or only weakly represented by the larger environmental groups.”

“According to proponents, a ‘hundred years of fire suppression’ has permitted the build-up of fuels, and by their assertion, more fuel results in larger conflagrations.

However, at best, this ‘fire suppression’ narrative is hyperbole.”

Read George Wuerthner’s deconstruction of the dominant narrative — in Counterpunch.

The Forest Advocate

In Wildfire Today, Bill Gabbert discusses how surviving homes in subdivisions that were destroyed by the Marshall Fire in the Denver suburbs had a common feature — that they were not as close to others as those which were destroyed. He lists factors that affect the vulnerably of structures to wildfire.  

Wildfire Today reports on new research from the University of New Mexico showing how inhaled microscopic particles from wood smoke can work their way into the bloodstream and reach the brain, putting people at risk for premature aging and various forms of dementia, depression, and even psychosis.

New York Times: “Pellets are undoubtedly having a moment. The open question is whether a world increasingly desperate to avert climate disaster will continue to embrace, or turn away from, humanity’s original fuel: wood.”

The Forest Advocate

The New Republic: The logging industry has long promoted science suggesting logging suppresses fire. A lot of recent research disagrees. Logging may actually make fires bigger, hotter, and move faster. Weather and climate, including drought, high winds, and heat waves with triple-digit temperatures, have exacerbated Western wildfires. 

The Hill: “There is no “right way” to do the wrong thing. Focusing on fuel reductions (except in the immediate area of homes and communities) is unlikely to achieve the results advocates of “active management” desire. Instead, our best way forward is to promote firewise home protection policies, reduce rural sprawl into fire-prone landscapes and ultimately get a handle on carbon emissions.”

In the decades since government restrictions reduced logging on federal lands, the timber industry has promoted the idea that private lands are less prone to wildfires, saying that forests thick with trees fuel bigger, more destructive blazes. But an analysis by Oregon Public Broadcasting and ProPublica shows last month’s fires burned as intensely on private forests with large-scale logging operations as they did, on average, on federal lands that cut fewer trees.

Jes Burns/Oregon Public Broadcasting
The Forest Advocate

The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) has proposed the Cone Fire Project to treat over a hundred thousand acres of Río Grande del Norte National Monument in Taos County with wildland fire, prescribed burns, thinning and herbicide applications. The herbicide proposed for use, tebuthiuron, has a high potential for groundwater contamination, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. 

The Forest Advocate has published more than 5,000 official public scoping comments submitted to the US Forest Service last year about their proposed 50,000+ acre Santa Fe Project. The Forest Service has been withholding these overwhelmingly negative comments from the public since July 2019.

In March of 2020, the Santa Fe National Forest suspended prescribed burning in order protect residents from the combined impacts of prescribed burn smoke and Covid. Confoundingly, the Forest Service started burning again and did not slow down even when the Covid crisis in New Mexico was at its worst.   

White House Council on Environmental Quality issues final rule for rolling back National Environmental Policy Act protections

Adam Rissien explains in Counterpunch how the US Forest Service uses legal loopholes to avoid analysis and public involvement. Rissien states that it “appears the Forest Service is now using categorical exclusions as a blank check to authorize enormous logging projects in sensitive and pristine areas, including Roadless Areas and watersheds that supply drinking water to local communities, without involving the public and without fully disclosing the impacts to species and their habitats.”

The Forest Advocate

Usually when public comments are filed with a federal agency, they are made, well, public. Not so for the Bureau of Land Management, which is demanding that in some cases, such comments only be obtained through the cumbersome Freedom of Information Act. Bobby McGill of Bloomberg Law explains. 

A nationwide coalition of organizations from the environmental justice, outdoor recreation, and conservation communities filed a lawsuit challenging the Trump administration’s attack on the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA).  Matthew Koehler reports in The Smokey Wire.

View complaint

Most forest fuel treatment and logging projects throughout the west are based on the assumption that megafires have been increasing in recent decades, damaging forests and preventing them from re-growing. But is this assumption correct?

Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue issued a memorandum to streamline processes to extract energy sources from our forests, to expedite environmental reviews to support active management, and to expedite broadband development on national forest lands.

The Guardian: “As humans proliferate, we have penetrated deeper into wildlife habitats, creating a pervasive rise in environmental sound with our gadgets, traffic and industry… Persistent noise from natural gas wells in New Mexico disrupted birds that feed on and distribute pinyon seeds.”

An “understanding” reached about Mexican spotted owls

The Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) has agreed to drop its pending lawsuit that accused federal agencies of planning forestry projects that could harm the Mexican spotted owl. Framed as “a new understanding,” a truce was reached this week between the CBD and the U.S. Forest Service and other agencies.

Read news story in Santa Fe New Mexican
Read CBD press release
Read the new “understanding

US Fish and Wildlife Service

WildEarth Guardians reached an agreement with federal land and wildlife managers regarding Mexican spotted owl monitoring. The Forest Service plans to work in collaboration with the Fish and Wildlife Service to develop and implement controlled management experiments to determine the effects of mechanical treatments and prescribed fire treatments on owls.

Emmy Koponen

The Santa Fe Conservation Alternative was developed in the spring of 2019 by WildEarth Guardians, Sierra Club, and Defenders of Wildlife. It was submitted to the Forest Service as a less environmentally impactful alternative to the proposed widespread and intensive tree cutting and prescribed burning for our local area Santa Fe National Forest.

Does thinning and applications of frequent low-severity fire over large areas restore forests, or does it degrade them? With side-by-side photos of untreated and treated forest, ecologist George Wuerthner explains which is ecologically healthier and why.

The Forest Advocate
Santa Fe, New Mexico