Southwestern forests need active management

By Craig D. Allen, Matthew Hurteau and Thomas W. Swetnam | | Dec 3, 2022

As longtime local forest and wildfire scientists who have spent decades developing ecological science
applicable to forest management, we paid careful attention to last month’s public listening session
about local forest management issues — sponsored by Santa Fe County Commissioner Anna
Hansen, WildEarth Guardians and the Forest Advocate.
Oddly, Dominick DellaSala from southern Oregon, who has conducted zero original research
focused on Northern New Mexico, was invited by the hosts to speak as their forest science expert.
While we agree with some important science-based points DellaSala made, we are compelled to
point out substantial scientific misinformation in the presentation.
We agree with the importance of maintaining increasingly rare, ecologically vital large trees and oldgrowth forests; that fire weather is very important; and climate change is markedly exacerbating
extreme fire activity. Because forest and fire ecology vary across geography, DellaSala noted some
“inappropriate extrapolations” of data from other places to our particular local landscape — yet his
presentation did just that.
Much of DellaSala’s narrative was shockingly ignorant of local forest conditions, histories and
trends. From a scientific perspective, much of DellaSala’s presentation was inaccurate, unbalanced,
incomplete or inconsistent, exhibiting classic examples of wildfire misinformation (e.g., described
In contrast to DellaSala’s narrative, abundant local research findings consistently support
consensus, mainstream science conducted throughout the Western U.S., including:
Fire weather and high fuel loads both contribute to extreme fire behavior.
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Most current, densely overgrown, dry-conifer forests are historically anomalous and increasingly vulnerable
to climate-induced die-offs and stand-replacing wildfires of historically unprecedented size and severity.
Wildfires increasingly kill large areas of conifer forest and convert them into non-forest, with substantial
negative impacts to watersheds and many forest-dwelling wildlife species.
Combinations of mechanical thinning and managed fire are well-documented to be effective for both
reducing wildfire severity and increasing the resilience of the forest, particularly large trees and forest
carbon pools. A sampling of local and Southwest research publications supporting these statements, along
with examples of treatment successes in our local forests, can be found at
Interestingly, after initially presenting misinformation about our local forests and fire, DellaSala in
his closing remarks contradicted some of his incorrect points with fact-based statements with which
we agree; e.g., he said: While it’s “a tough pill to swallow … we’re living in fire habitat, and you can’t
shut the fire valve off”; “we’re in a deficit of fire … the ecosystem needs more fire on the landscape”;
“it is a reality … there’s gonna be fire burning in your community”; and we need to be “working more
with natural wildfires … in the backcountry.”
While an immense amount of diverse forest and fire ecology research has been conducted and
published from our local Sangre de Cristo and Jemez mountains over the past 45 years, note that
neither DellaSala, nor any other Santa Fe purveyor of wildfire misinformation, has presented any
local scientific research data or findings in support of their contrarian assertions. In contrast,
abundant local research published in the world’s most reputable scientific journals supports our
summary findings listed above.
The overwhelming majority of research that has been conducted in Southwestern forests
demonstrates the importance of using thinning in the right places to restore regular burning for the
resilience and maintenance of our forests. As scientists, we feel compelled to point out persistent
misinformation aimed at stopping urgently needed active management. Also, we all have
longstanding personal connections to the forests of Northern New Mexico.
We, like you, care deeply about and directly depend upon the health of these forests and watersheds.
Diverse research by many independent scientists supported by universities and federal science
agencies, as well as direct societal experience of severe wildfire impacts here, clearly shows the
combined risks that over 120 years of fire exclusion and climate change pose to our local forests and
watersheds. We have documented accelerating forest loss and extreme watershed impacts from
high-severity wildfire and climate change in New Mexico during most of our careers — and we know
more unprecedented ecosystem change is coming.
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We also know that restoring the right kinds of fire and forest densities, based on a scientific
understanding of the local ecology, can help our forests adaptively persist in the face of ongoing
climate change. If interested in continuing the conversation, we will participate in an interactive
public webinar at 6 p.m. Dec. 15 to share and discuss the best available forest and fire science for our
Santa Fe mountains landscape, livestreamed through the Santa Fe Fireshed Coalition Facebook
Craig D. Allen is a research scholar in the Department of Geography and Environmental Studies at the
University of New Mexico. He lives in Nambé. Matthew Hurteau is a professor in the UNM Biology Department
and lives in Albuquerque; and Thomas W. Swetnam is Regents Professor Emeritus, Laboratory of Tree-Ring
Research, University of Arizona. He lives in Jemez Springs.