US Forest Service

The U.S. Forest Service has released its final environmental assessment of plans to restore riparian areas in the Carson, Santa Fe and Cibola national forests, drawing mixed reactions from conservationists.

Environmental groups applauded the overall plan to restore and protect areas around rivers and streams, which host diverse wildlife, but at least one said the report doesn't go far enough in defining all that needs to be done to sustain these ecosystems.

The plan identifies three of Northern New Mexico's national forests and the Kiowa National Grasslands with the aim of enhancing wildlife habitat, watershed health and water quality.

It looks at the impacts that "stressors" such as climate change, wildfires, grazing, urbanization, recreation and invasive species have on the systems and how they can be mitigated.

"Although only 2.5 percent of the 4.8 million acres of National Forest System lands in Northern New Mexico are wetlands or riparian areas, they provide essential ecological functions far beyond their small footprint on the landscape," forest officials said in a statement. "Riparian zones provide the highest plant, bird, insect, reptile-amphibian and mammal biodiversity on the forests."

Almost 60 percent of the "subwatersheds" - small water systems that drain into larger water bodies - across the three forests have been identified as impaired or functioning at risk, forest officials said, emphasizing the need for a restoration plan.

The three regional forest agencies collaborated on the report under the National Environmental Policy Act. A 45-day objection period for the final assessment began Monday, but it is limited to those who delivered substantial statements and analyses in previous public comment periods.

A Santa Fe environmental group lauded the restoration effort, but would have preferred an environmental impact statement, which gives more in-depth and detailed site-specific analyses than this broader type of study.

"In general, this is a very good project," said Madeleine Carey, a conservation staffer with WildEarth Guardians. "They should be taking it more seriously by doing more analyses that leverage more data because we always want to be [using] the best available science and the best available data to guide management decisions."

Carey likened the report to a restaurant advertising basic offerings, such as pizza, soup and salad, versus a menu detailing all the items in each category.

As an example, she noted the report mentions watershed acreage in a section of forest. But that area might contain a waterfall, which would have different features and ecosystems than a stream, she said.

The lack of specific data makes it extremely difficult for anyone to assess how well the restoration effort will work, Carey said.

An impact statement, being a more thorough study, would require more fieldwork and take longer to complete, she said. It would be difficult for the regional agencies to do because they are underfunded and understaffed, Carey said, arguing that the solution is to bolster their funding.

The assessment gives an overview of:

•Projects to improve passage for aquatic species.

• In-stream, side-channel and floodplain projects.

• Riparian vegetation treatments.

• Roads and trails, including erosion control, relocation and decommissioning.

• Restoration of seeps and springs.

"The riparian restoration plan is an important step forward in protecting wildlife and building resilience to climate change," said Bryan Bird, Southwest program director for Defenders of Wildlife.

Bird said he is pleased the study refers many times to beavers and their importance to the health of riparian ecosystems.

Defenders collaborated with the state Department of Game and Fish and Santa Fe National Forest on a different riparian study, Bird said.

The study looks at whether human-made structures such as culverts harm the habitats of several species that depend on riparian areas for their survival, Bird said.

The goal is to expand the list of drainage improvements in the region's national forests, Bird said, noting that it's all part of the larger conservation effort.

"The national forests in New Mexico are our water supply, capturing, storing and delivering fresh water," Bird said. "It's time to treat them like an irreplaceable resource."

On the web

View the U.S. Forest Service's final environmental assessment and supporting documents at fs.usda.gov/project/?project=56975.

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