To Thin or Not to Thin Still Being Argued

By KAY MATTHEWS

The recent devastating fires in New Mexico—Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon in the north and Black Fire in the south—have once again brought to light the dangerous conditions of our national forests due to a number of causes: a century of fire suppression, decades of drought, and the failure to reduce carbon emissions to mitigate a climate crisis. It has also brought to light a longtime controversy over how best to address these conditions staring us in the face: implement hands on management of fuel reduction through thinning, prescribed burning, chipping, and vegetative removal or hands-off “non-management” to let nature take its own course by letting fires burn in their traditional cycles with no thinning—much less logging—to reduce fuels. This is an oversimplification of the two thought processes, but a name that continues to surface as these positions are argued among the “professionals” is Dr. Chad Hanson, co-founder of the environmental group John Muir Project based in California.

I first encountered Hanson in the mid 1990s when La Jicarita started covering the contentious issues around access to forest resources in northern New Mexico. I wrote about him in the “Zero Cut” chapter of my 2015 book Culture Clash: Environmental Politics in New Mexico Forest Communities. Hanson was a big proponent Zero Cut, an attempt to prohibit any logging on public lands and inserted himself into norteño-contested terrain between community loggers and environmentalists like Forest Guardians (now WildEarth Guardians) that also supported the initiative. Hanson went so far as to state that northern New Mexico was being deforested under the guise of environmental justice and got personal:

• He claimed that Antonio “Ike” DeVargas, one of the founders of La Companía Ocho, had a well-documented history of violence against anyone trying to protect national forests and had physically assaulted forest activists;

• He accused Chellis Glendinning, a local norteño activist, of having a financial interest in La Companía Ocho, the logging company based in the Vallecitos Sustained Yield Unit;

• He accused Carl Anthony, president of Earth Island Institute, the parent organization of John Muir Project, of being taken in by “ruse” of environmental justice and that Anthony had made “racial attacks against me” (Anthony is black, Hanson is white).

Hanson does not believe that forest restoration is achieved via thinning and burning or chipping the resulting slash. He believes that thinning contributes to the potential for large fires because it reduces the shade cover that a thick forest creates to reduce temperatures and provide a windbreak that could stop fire. He stated this in an October 14, 2021 article in the Sacramento Bee, my second encounter with Hanson. His organization has filed numerous lawsuits against the Forest Service that have slowed down thinning operations. In the article Hanson stated, “We go to court to stand up for science.” The article goes on to say:

“But over the past few years, as California has endured record-breaking wildfires, a legion of fire scientists is delivering a blunt message to Hanson and other environmentalists who oppose forest thinning: Get out of the way.”

“In an extraordinary series of articles published in scientific journals, fire scientists are attacking Hanson’s and his allies’ claims that the woods need to be left alone. These scientists say the activists are misleading the public and bogging down vital work needed to protect wildlife, communities and make California’s forests more resilient to wildfire.

“I and my colleagues are getting really tired of the type of activism that pretends to be science and in fact is just self-serving garbage,” said Crystal Kolden, a professor of wildfire science at UC Merced and co-author of a journal article that rebutted Hanson’s arguments….”

In response to this article Robin Collier of Cultural Energy KCEI radio in Taos, interviewed (October, 2021) J.R. Logan, Taos County Wildlife Urban Interface Coordinator (WUI), the agency that oversees thinning and prescribed burning to protect threatened communities. He is also a board member of the Cerro Negro Forest Council, a forest restoration project in the San Cristobal area. In the interview Logan made a critical distinction between Hanson’s opposition to this kind of forest restoration and his analysis of how we got into this situation: “I listened to a tape of Dr. Hanson and found a number of things he said that I agreed with. For instance, the federal government, particularly the Forest Service, has mismanaged the forest in the western United States for a century. We excluded fire from an ecosystem that needed it to find a balance between types of vegetation. We allowed grazing in areas where we probably shouldn’t have, that sometimes changed the vegetation types. The Forest Service has been too cozy with the logging industry and we over extracted resources, particularly in the Northwest, but also here in the Southwest. There’s uncertainty on the ecology in certain areas that needs more rigorous science. And we need more fire on the ground. However, I also think the ways Hanson presented this information was significantly over simplified. He cherry picked information and fundamentally ignored ecosystems in different regions to serve his political purposes.”

Another recent article zeroes in on Hanson’s “political purposes” as well as the failure of the Forest Service to implement a long planned fire mitigation plan. In CapRadio’s “Stalled U.S. Forest Service project could have protected California town from Caldor Fire destruction,” the authors document how a planned fire mitigation project on the Sierra Nevada’s Eldorado National Forest could have saved the town of Grizzly Flats, where 400 of 600 houses burned down in 2020. More than two decades after an initial warning by the Forest Service that a wildfire with the Caldor Fire’s progression could easily “wipe Grizzly Flats off the map,” the Trestel Forest Health Project was supposed to be completed by 2020, a year before the Caldor Fire burned through the town and the surrounding ponderosa pine forest. The article reported that the project’s aim was to “ ‘reduce the threat of large high intensity wildfire and threats to Grizzly Flat[s]’ and other nearby landowners by removing excess brush and vegetation that fuel increasingly devastating wildfires, according to project documents.”

Many factors contributed to its incompletion, including Forest Service mismanagement and lack of funds, but Hanson intervened in the project with an objection that it would “pose a serious and unacceptable threat to owl populations on the Eldorado National Forest.” According to the article, “The project’s 296-page environmental impact statement devoted dozens of pages to analyzing potential impacts on the spotted owl. The report also invited public comment that demanded thoroughly researched responses from the Forest Service. The agency developed alternative maps, taking into account spotted owls and sensitive species of frog and trout.”

John Horning, Executive Director of WildEarth Guardians raises the same arguments as Hanson only much closer to home. He’s quoted in a Source New Mexico article “Logging after New Mexico wildfires could help forests but won’t likely happen for months if at all,” arguing that all logging, not just after fires, hurts ecosystems by allowing more noxious weeds and invasive plants to grow. “He said it also destroys old-growth forests that some species live in, like the Mexican spotted owl or the Jemez Mountains salamander. Plus, he added, the mature trees help fight climate change with their carbon absorption.” He continually uses the word “logging” as a trigger to describe both salvage logging—thinning a burned area to mitigate further fire damage—and thinning of green fuelwood in WUI and forest restoration projects to provide fire protection, firewood, and employment. Both Horning and Hanson are on record that no one should be making a profit from “logging” a national forest.

Horning’s statement in the article about the status of the Jemez Mountains was particularly jarring: “Having been in New Mexico for 30 years, he said, he’s seen places like the Jemez Mountains and the Gila National forest transformed for the worse because trees have been cut down. 

‘It completely transformed the landscape from a wild, cool, lush place with a pretty little stream running through it to a hotter, drier landscape with lots of stumps,’ Horning said.”

Horning’s statement about the Jemez is misleading. Greg Allen, a longtime researcher in the Jemez Mountains for the USGS and ecology professor at UNM, is interviewed in another article about wildfire, this time in Searchlight NM. Allen has long maintained that large areas of many other New Mexico forests are going to look like the Jemez, where fire and drought have reduced the ponderosa forest there into a shrubland. “ ‘The bill has come due, . . . We are now in the age of consequence.’ ”

Allen believes we have a short window of opportunity to make our forests more resilient as we head into many years of drought and climate change conditions. Foresters like Allen have lobbied for thinning and prescribed burning on a large scale—tens of thousands of acres—but nowhere near that amount of work has yet been done. The Jemez Mountain Restoration Project proposed to treat 90,000 acres over a 10-year period, but the plan met opposition from the public over both thinning, by those who use the word “commercial” thinning as a scare tactic, and fire, where the USFS and Park Service admittedly have a poor record.

That poor record was replicated in the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire when prescribed burns got out of control and caused enormous damage and heartbreak. An unidentified commenter on a recent La Jicarita article  made the same argument that Horning and Hanson make:  “Cutting and burning large swaths of land will just make the land hotter and drier, increasingly potential for devastating fires” and “It’s always best to follow nature with its own living intelligence that far surpasses humans’ limited conceptual understanding.” Another comment was made by Carol Miller, who lives in Ojo Sarco, where slash piles from a nearby thinning project worry her about the Forest Service’s ability to safely burn once the rains abate. To mitigate some of the trauma caused by the Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire this would be an ideal project for mastication rather than burning. But whatever methods are used on the thousands of acres that need treatment, it needs to get done, and as the “legions of scientists” in California said of Hanson and other environmentalists: “Get out of the way.”

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7 comments

  1. “Lake was talking about a deliberate decision made in 1911 by the Forest Service’s first director, Gifford Pinchot, to champion the idea that all fires sparked on the landscape were bad…”

    ” Robbins, her council and tribe prescribe burns for fire management like doctors prescribe medicine.”

    https://www.pbs.org/newshour/science/fire-is-medicine-how-indigenous-practices-could-help-curb-wildfires

    “We coexist with fire, we need fire and fire needs us. It’s a different way of looking at the forest,” …”That push and pull is what led Lake and Christianson to work on educating others on how diverse fire management, including Indigenous methods, can be a larger part of the forest management conversation. Christianson is a member of the Métis Nation in Western Canada.”

  2. I have walked on some of the areas that have been thinned and by leaving basically just the better looking pine trees, it seems to me that those are being left for future logging. In my opinion they need to leave more of a variety. More of the healthier junipers, pinions, and also more of medium and smaller pines. That would be a healthier natural forest. Do some thinning where the trees are overcrowded, but don’t leave it looking so sterile.

    • Sam, there are previously thinned areas that might look to you as potential logging areas, but times have changed and there is virtually no commercial logging left in northern New Mexico other than commercial thinning for forest restoration. Some mills have been refitted so they can utilize smaller diameter trees, but that’s a byproduct of the need to thin for fire mitigation. Many more agencies are now involved in consulting with the Forest Service on thinning prescriptions that take into account different ecosystems, wildlife habitat, watershed restoration, and other factors.

  3. The recent devastating fire (Hermits Peak/Calf Canyon Fire) has brought to light the incredible mismanagement of our forests by the Forest Service. The Chief’s report on the Hermits Peak Fire was a tragicomedy of errors — lack of trained staffing, lack of proper equipment in place, lack of appropriate weather monitoring equipment and misuse of equipment, pressure to burn as much and as fast as possible, and ignoring basic common sense — don’t burn during a protracted period of high winds, especially when the forest is very dry. But you are blaming it on dangerous conditions in our forests. Those 342,000 acres would not have burned had the FS not done two reckless and ill-conceived burns.

    Much of this post is slander against Dr. Chad Hanson. And it’s hearsay. Why not examine his body of peer-reviewed scientific work and make reasoned comments about it?

    The Forest Service has highly damaged the Santa Fe National Forest with their overly aggressive and widespread fuel treatments, and evidence is lacking it reduces fire behavior enough to justify the damage or the risks. A true, genuine cost/benefit analysis must be done. So far the Forest Service has refused to do so. Despite burning up almost half the forest to the east of Santa Fe, they essentially want to continue on with a local project in adjoining national forest, the Santa Fe Mountains Project, business as usual.

    It’s mind boggling. BTW, very rude to tell those who are trying to protect our forests from such reckless damage, and who simply want comprehensive analysis with a full range of scientific research included, to simply get out of the way. Or who have an ecological perspective that is different than yours. That makes managing our forests partisan and really more like a war than anything else.

    Please focus on science.

    • What I say in the article about Hanson is not hearsay. What I wrote in my book was from emails I had access to and the other statements are from sources quoted in magazine articles about the dangerous situation we confront. I am not defending the Forest Service but policies that are endorsed by other agencies and non-profits: The Nature Conservancy, New Mexico State Forestry, Forest Stewards Guild, the NRCS, etc.

  4. By way of an update, many letters about the slash piles adjacent to Ojo Sarco have been sent to the NM Congressional Delegation and Governor Lujan Grisham. Not only Ojo Sarco residents are concerned, neighbors in surrounding communities are also concerned because have seen how widely fires can travel, especially when propelled by strong winds. Letters and petitions are being drafted and circulated. Mastication would be the most effective solution, followed by chipping. The question remains, will the community voice be heard.

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