ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. (AP) — A proposed effort to restore a wide swath of national forest land in southern New Mexico over the next decade or two is drawing fire from environmentalists who say the U.S. government needs to do more to determine the effects on endangered species and the land.
The project would cover more than 218 square miles (600 square kilometers) in the Sacramento Mountains. With a combination of prescribed fire, thinning and herbicides, forest officials want to create healthier stands of trees and reduce the threat of wildfire.
Federal land managers have been working on similar projects across the Southwest with varied success in hopes of confronting changes in the climate and slowing the pace of wildfires across the region, which has seen its share of record-setting blazes over the last decade.
In northern New Mexico, restoration work is planned for 328 square miles (850 square kilometers) in the Jemez Mountains, where a handful of large and destructive wildfires have charred tens of thousands of acres and destroyed hundreds of homes since 2000.
In neighboring Arizona, there have been fits and starts with a large-scale initiative to restore ponderosa pine groves across four national forests.
Foresters responsible for the Sacramento Mountains in their planning documents pointed to an overall decline in forest health in the area, evidenced by high tree mortality and increased risk for what they call uncharacteristic wildfire.
They put most of the blame on insects and disease — the effects of which are exacerbated in times of drought.
Managers noted a large die-off of ponderosa pine, pinon, Douglas fir and white fir between 2011 and 2013, when bark beetles got the upper hand due to drought.
Surveys also have shown that nearly three-fifths of the area that would be treated under the plan are at high risk of losing more trees due to insects and disease.
Forest officials also say the conditions have resulted in less than desirable habitat for Mexican spotted owl and other wildlife.
Environmentalists say the goal of the restoration plan would mark a step in the right direction, but they have concerns .
They are seeking a revised study, saying forest managers need to better assess the effects of new roads that would be required for the work along with soil disturbance and logging in owl habitat.
The groups contend managers must go back to the drawing board or risk violating federal laws if they move ahead with the plan.
Forest officials have said they have various tools available to meet their objectives and specific prescriptions would be developed depending on the characteristics of the different areas they're working in.
But environmentalists say the language in the draft environmental review is too broad and offers no assurances that old trees and owl habitat would be protected.
"We want to support a project grounded in science and core restoration principles. But this project isn't there yet," they wrote.
The Lincoln National Forest is expected to issue its final environmental review next month.