PUBLIC LANDS

Enviros challenge forest restoration project they helped develop

Correction appended.

Building and reopening miles of roads in the Santa Fe National Forest for a massive restoration project designed to make the forest more resilient to wildfires and insects would cause more harm than good, according to a formal protest filed by an environmental group that helped the Forest Service develop the project.

Santa Fe, N.M.-based WildEarth Guardians filed the formal objection this month, challenging a section of the project authorizing the roads to allow for logging and tree thinning across roughly 30,000 acres of the national forest.

The Forest Service in August released a final environmental impact statement (EIS) and draft record of decision (ROD) for the project. WildEarth Guardians' objection specifically challenges portions of the final EIS and draft ROD.

A spokeswoman for the Santa Fe National Forest defended the restoration plan outlined in the final EIS and draft ROD.

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The forest is part of the ambitious Southwest Jemez Mountains Landscape Restoration Project that covers about 210,000 acres in the national forest, as well as the Valles Caldera National Preserve and the Bandelier National Monument. One major goal of the overall project is to help protect watersheds by making the forests less vulnerable to intense wildfires.

The landscape restoration project was developed over the past five years through a collaborative process with the Forest Service that included more than 40 stakeholders, including WildEarth Guardians, the New Mexico Forest Industry Association and the Nature Conservancy.

But the environmental group is protesting the plan because the benefits could be "outweighed by the negative effects on soil and water resources in a watershed that already suffers serious impairments to soil conditions and water quality," the 11-page objection says.

"In particular, reopening and reconstructing roads and constructing new roads will have long-lasting cumulative impacts on the watershed" that the restoration project is designed to protect, it says.

Thus, the group's leaders felt they had to object even though they agree with the overall objectives and many of the restoration actions in the plan, said Bryan Bird, an ecologist with WildEarth Guardians.

Among other things, the group's objection says the Forest Service should have analyzed the roads and the "significant environmental impacts on a range of forest resources" in the final EIS.

"WildEarth Guardians worked with the Santa Fe National Forest and other collaborators for over five years to develop a good restoration project," Bird said. "In the end, however, the Forest Service chose the 'bull in the china shop' approach. There will be more harm done than good."

The 12 miles of temporary new roads, as well as the reopening of more than 100 miles of existing closed roads, could impact soils and cause erosion that could pollute waterways, the group says.

All the temporary roads would be closed after the project is completed in the next decade, the Forest Service says.

"It's unfortunate the Forest Service in the end chose the most extreme intervention," Bird said. "We had agreement around some beneficial activities including road decommissioning, stream restoration and beaver re-establishment. But the Forest Service still wants to log our fragile forests."

WildEarth Guardians' objection was one of two the Forest Service received, said Julie Anne Overton, a spokeswoman for the Santa Fe National Forest.

Overton said an individual filed the second objection. To qualify to file an objection, any group or individual must have first submitted comments during public scoping and other public comment periods.

As for WildEarth Guardians, Overton said in an emailed statement that it is "a valued partner in the Collaborative" that has been "actively involved in other restoration projects on the forest."

"While we understand their concerns, the proposed alternative was developed in collaboration with [WildEarth Guardians], other members of the Collaborative, and the public," she added. "We feel that it addresses and mitigates the impacts on soil conditions and water quality raised in [the group's] objection. We will continue to work with [WildEarth Guardians] to try to reach mutually acceptable resolution of its objections so that the project can move forward with the greatest support from all stakeholders."

Correction: Because of incorrect information provided by the Forest Service, an earlier version of this story misstated that a second objection had been ruled ineligible.

Email: sstreater@eenews.net

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