ENCINO VISTA PROJECT NEWS

Public comment period for Encino Vista Project closes; Forest Service continues to keep comments out of public view

Agency officials make guest appearance at community meeting in Canones, acknowledge past mistakes, and assert priority of being a community asset

Jonathan Glass   March 18, 2024
updated April 19, 2024 

On March 14, the US Forest Service released new details about its wide-ranging “Encino Vista Landscape Restoration Project” in the northern Jemez Mountains and offered the public a second opportunity to comment on its plans.  The new draft environmental assessment (EA) proposes the cutting and/or intentional burning of up to about 82 thousand acres of forest.  The stated purpose of the project is to “restore overall forest health, lower uncharacteristic high severity fire risk, improve watershed health, and protect wildlife habitat across the project area.”  

Since the Encino Vista Project was announced in 2019, the Forest Service has reduced by over thirty percent the total acreage proposed to be cut and/or intentionally burned within the project area.  However, the new proposal more than quadruples the maximum amount of area to be intentionally burned without first being cut; this is now about 48 thousand acres, which is more than half the total area proposed for prescribed burning.  Another new addition to the agency’s proposal is commercial logging across about seven thousand acres.

Below is a map of the approximately 130-thousand-acre project area relative to the cities of Los Alamos and Santa Fe.  The lines on the map are roads, including 761 miles of national forest roads within the project area, up to 500 miles of which the Forest Service proposes to improve as part of the project.

CLICK TO ENLARGE Roads: yellow and aqua = passenger cars; green = high clearance; orange = closed; magenta = decommissioned. Base map: Google Earth; Road data: US Forest Service

Project Publicity

The Forest Service announced Encino Vista and a corresponding public scoping meeting about the project in November 2019 with a paper flyer which was posted locally and mailed to some post office boxes near the project area.  For further publicity about the scoping process, the agency issued no public news release, placed no legal notice in a newspaper, and contacted no news source to announce the project, even though Encino Vista was going to be the largest cutting and intentional burning project in Santa Fe National Forest history.  To this day, there has been little mention of the project in the media.

The Forest Service received only 14 comments from the public during the 2019 scoping comment period for Encino Vista.  In contrast, also in 2019, thousands of people submitted scoping comments about the agency’s smaller but much better publicized cutting and intentional burning project – the Santa Fe Mountains Project.  When in 2019, the Santa Fe National Forest Supervisor of the time went on public radio to discuss the Santa Fe project, he did not so much as mention the much larger Encino Vista project which the agency also had in the offing that year. 

Upon the release of the draft environmental assessment, the Forest Service finally issued its first news release ever on the project, placed a legal notice about the project in the Albuquerque Journal, and posted on its online project page most of the scoping comments which it received from the public in 2019.  The agency had chosen not to post the scoping comments online for public view at the time of scoping, and it continued not to post the comments, even when the agency released its responses to the scoping comments in 2021. Its stated position was that its posting public comments was an optional courtesy, as opposed to a requirement.  However, this policy appears inconsistent with Forest Service regulations governing public participation in land management planning, which state that

the agency should be “proactive and use contemporary tools, such as the Internet, to engage the public, and should share information in an open way with interested parties”

The Forest Service continues to appear to not follow this regulation in respect to the Encino Vista Project, as the agency has not posted any of the public comments it received on the Encino Vista draft EA in its online reading room for Encino Vista comments.  At various times in the recent years, public comments about Santa Fe National Forest projects submitted via the agency’s online portal became immediately viewable in a reading room.  In the case of Encino Vista, however, the public has been unable to read the public comments submitted about the project.  

A Question of Significance

Management of US forests is governed by the nation’s foremost environmental statute: the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 (NEPA).  Before a federal agency can implement a major project “significantly affecting the quality of the human environment,” NEPA requires preparation of a detailed document – an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) – on the environmental impact of what the agency proposes to do.  In the case of the Encino Vista Project, though, the Forest Service has already found that

no significant issues were presented in scoping that would result in unavoidable significant effects and the need to prepare an EIS

An EA, such as the Forest Service has produced in draft form and released for the Encino Vista Project, requires a lesser type of analysis of impacts than is required in an EIS.  Under NEPA, the public comments received about a draft EA are to help an agency assess a project’s impacts and decide whether it is required to prepare an EIS.  For Encino Vista, however, the agency appears to have decided that there will be no EIS before receiving public comments on its draft EA.  Evidence of this can be further seen in the following table of project milestones, taken from the agency’s webpage for Encino Vista:

Milestones listed on Encino Vista project page (US Forest Service)

Forest Service regulations require the agency to open an objection period after making a draft decision to proceed with a project.  If after a comment period on a draft EA, however, the agency decides to prepare an EIS rather than trying to proceed right away, it does not hold an objection period at that time.  Given that there is an objection period in the project milestones table coming soon after the comment period, it appears that when this table was published before the comment period, the agency intended to proceed with the project and not prepare an EIS regardless of what public comments on the project it might subsequently receive.  

Cañones Community Concerns

Santa Fe National Forest’s Cañones Vegetation Project, in development in early 2019, was designed to protect the Cañones watershed. As the agency expanded that project into the much larger Encino Vista Project, members of the Cañones community became alarmed that their concerns about the project were not being heard.  Concerns included the possibility of escaped burns as well as the enormous amounts of flooding and sediment runoff that can occur during rainstorms, particularly after cutting and/or intentional burning in the mountains above the village.

Eventually, the Forest Service appears to have decided to pay Cañones more attention. In its October 2020 Scoping Comment Content Analysis of the project, the agency wrote: “The Forest intends to hold several public meetings in Cañones to better understand needs and concerns that the community may hold.” (p. 21) However, the agency never held a meeting in Cañones.

In April 2024, when it was clear that the Forest Service was not even going to hold a meeting in Cañones before the end of its suddenly announced 30 day comment period on the draft EA for Encino Vista, community members in Cañones decided to hold a meeting of their own and invite the agency. The Forest Service accepted the invitation. On April 11, 2024, the Santa Fe National Forest Supervisor along with five staff officers attended a community meeting in Cañones.

At the meeting, the Forest Supervisor stressed that his top priority for Santa Fe National Forest – higher priority than any specific project – was to know and relate to local communities and to be a community asset. The Supervisor said he heard the agency had “really missed the bar” during scoping and that “We had work to do on this project and didn’t get there. But I’m hoping that this is the beginning of more of that dialogue with the community here in Cañones.”

The Coyote District Ranger, who is the Responsible Official for Encino Vista but did not hold that position at the time of scoping in 2019, also expressed regret about having “dropped the ball” in respect to community requests of the agency for more transparency and more meetings. “I take responsibility for that,” he said. “However, if I can somehow redeem myself a little bit, I am willing to do that.”

During the meeting, agency officials heard many concerns from the Cañones community, including about the the about the hazard of choking smoke that descends into the canyon when there is fire in the area, about the single route available for evacuating from the canyon in case of an emergency, about the agency’s inadequate analysis of the Cañones Creek Watershed, and about the agency’s  focus on industrial logging as opposed to small-diameter logging which community members traditionally carried out on the land.

Toward the end of the meeting, the Forest Supervisor stated “we’re trying to figure out all these pieces, but sometimes we miss stuff, and working collaboratively will help us to not miss these things, and to be able to answer a lot of questions and a lot of concerns, and to look at how we prioritize local communities and local operators.”

In response to community members suggesting that the Forest Service must prepare an EIS for Encino Vista because of likely significant impacts of the project on the environment, the Forest Supervisor stated the following:

I like wrapping up here about the significance. There are legal terms, and I’m sure you know that. There are actual legal terms, and the Council of Environmental Quality identifies how you make the definition of the decision to say something is not significant.
There are ten questions that the deciding official has to describe, that if you can describe why it’s not significant in response to those ten questions, then you go to a FONSI, and if you can’t, then you go to an EIS.

How the Forest Service Gave a Comparable Project Far Greater Publicity

In 2012, the Forest Service planned its Southwest Jemez Mountains Project — a cutting and intentional burning project beginning three miles to the south of the current Encino Vista area.  The Southwest Jemez project area at the time of its scoping was about fifteen percent smaller than Encino Vista’s at scoping.  The Forest Service produced the required Environmental Impact Statement for Southwest Jemez.

By the end of the public scoping comment period for  Southwest Jemez, the Forest Service had already held ten public meetings on the project – four in Santa Fe, four in Jemez Springs, and two in Albuquerque. The agency also invited the public on three field trips to the project area in the Jemez. The meetings and field trips were publicized with multiple news releases and by placing announcements in four newspapers and on public radio.

By contrast, by the end of the initial public comment period for Encino Vista in 2019, the Forest Service had held only two public meetings about the project. Furthermore, the agency has held no field trips for Encino Vista.  

Overall, it appears questionable whether the Forest Service has handled its Encino Vista Project in a fashion consistent with the Council on Environmental Quality (CEQ) regulation on public participation in effect at the time of scoping, which states that

Federal agencies shall to the fullest extent possible encourage and facilitate public involvement in decisions which affect the quality of the human environment.

Environmental Justice

The Forest Service has a responsibility under its regulation, “Requirements for Public Participation,” to provide opportunities for engagement about projects and encourage participation by low income and minority populations.  The Coyote Census County Division (CCD) of Rio Arriba County, New Mexico, encompasses the other communities most proximate to the Encino Vista Project Area.  This area has less than half of the mean US household income, a poverty rate more than one and a half times the US average, educational attainment of less than half the US average, and households in which the majority speak a language other than English.  As a result, it appears that the amount of public outreach conducted by the Forest Service for the Encino Vista Project, including community meetings, field trips, media exposure, and news releases, would be expected to be much more – not less – than that for projects affecting areas of average demographic characteristics.

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Intentional burning on the Coyote Ranger District, Santa Fe National Forest. Photo: US Forest Service


Note on Terminology

The word “cutting” is used on this site to describe cutting down trees in the forest, whether with chainsaws, masticators, or other machines which cut and/or shred live vegetation.  The Forest Service generally uses the word “thinning” to describe its cutting practices, even if it is cutting down most of the trees in an area.
The term “intentional burning” is used on this site to describe intentionally setting an area of forest on fire.  The Forest Service typically instead uses “prescribed burning” to describe such practice, or — particularly in past years — “controlled burning.”  Because intentionally set fires can escape control, and because the word “prescribed” commonly connotes medical treatment which is beneficial to life, “intentional burning” seems like the clearest descriptor here.
Note that agency documentation typically refers to the collective practices of cutting and intentional burning as “fuels treatments” and/or “restoration.”
For more on the language of forest management, see a new article by Sarah Hyden in Counterpunch.
 

Key Details

♦  One of the two largest cutting and intentional burning projects ever proposed for Santa Fe National Forest: 
⇒  total project area of 130,305 acres
⇒ up to ~81,892 acres of cutting and/or intentional burning 
⇒  up to ~74,690 acres of intentional burning
⇒ up to ~47,990 acres of intentional burning without prior cutting
⇒  up to ~33,902 acres of cutting, including 7,202 acres of commercial logging of 14″ to 24″ diameter saw timber via timber sales
(why the terms “cutting” and “intentional burning”?)
⇒  up to 500 miles of road improvement
♦ Almost twice as much combined cutting and intentional burning than is slated for the Santa Fe Mountains Project (for which 18,000 acres of cutting and 38,000 acres of intentional burning is expected)
♦ Compared with the proposal in the 2019 scoping document, the current proposal entails up to about four times as much intentional burning without prior cutting, at least 25% less intentional burning overall, and at least 65% less cutting overall.
♦  According to Forest Service, “the project was developed based on the need to improve ecosystem and watershed resiliency and reduce the risk of uncharacteristic wildfire events to the surrounding communities.”
♦  Project area less than 40 miles from Santa Fe and less than 15 miles from Los Alamos

Key Documentation

♦  US Forest Service’s news release / invitation for public input about Encino Vista
♦  USFS’ online project page for the project
♦  USFS: Draft environmental assessment, Mar 2024
♦  USFS: Appendices to draft environmental assessment

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♦  USFS: scoping notification letter, Nov 2019
♦  USFS: scoping document, Nov 2019
♦  The Forest Advocate: selected excerpt from each public scoping comment 
♦  The Forest Advocate: public scoping comments obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, Nov-Dec 2019 
♦  USFS: response to public scoping comments, Oct 2020
♦  Serious concerns and requests regarding the Encino Vista Project, a memo to Santa Fe National Forest Supervisor from community members and scoping commenters, including myself, Feb 2022

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♦  USFS: Santa Fe National Forest Land Management Plan, Jul 2022
♦  USFS: Expanding the Pace and Scale of Wildfire Risk Reduction and Forest Health Treatments, Jan 2024
♦  USFS: Chief’s Letter of Intent for Wildfire, Jun 2023
♦  USFS: National Prescribed Fire Resource Mobilization Strategy, Jue 2023
♦  USFS: Confronting the Wildfire Crisis, Jan 2022
♦  USFS: National Prescribed Fire Review, Sep 2022
♦  USFS: Cerro Pelado Report of Investigation – Redacted – May 2023
♦  USFS: Gallinas – Las Dispensas Prescribed Fire Declared Wildfire Review, Jun 2022
♦  National Park Service: Cerro Grande Fire – Board of Inquiry – Final ReportFeb 2001
♦  General Accounting Office: Lessons Learned From the Cerro Grande Fire – Aug 2000
♦  USFS: Meet the Forest Service: Caring for the Land and Serving People – Jul 2018

USFS Project Maps

Public Open Houses about the Project

Hosted by US Forest Service
Thursday, March 14, 2024
open houses announced by USFS
Wednesday, March 20, 2024
5:30 p.m. to 8:00 p.m
Coronado High School Boardroom
1903 State Highway 96, Gallina, NM
public attendance: 4
Saturday, March 23, 2024
1:00 p.m. to 3:00 p.m.
Location: Rural Events Center – Abiquiu
House #122A State Road 55, Abiquiu, NM
public attendance: 5

USFS’ Stated Purpose and Need

The draft environmental assessment defines the purpose and need of the Encino Vista Project as follows:
The Purpose of the Encino Vista Landscape Restoration project is to restore overall forest health, lower uncharacteristic high severity fire risk, improve watershed health, and protect wildlife habitat across the project area. In order to implement restoration activities and improve forest health, there is also a need to improve and maintain a transportation system in a manner that reduces negative impacts to watershed health and facilitates access to project areas.
The Need of the Encino Vista Landscape Project is to move the forest toward desired conditions, as described in the Santa Fe National Forest Land Management Plan (USDA, 2022b), protect local communities and watersheds, protect and enhance wildlife habitat, and create a resilient forest landscape that may withstand unforeseen disturbances.

Project Photos