The Railyard Steward’s and the City of Santa Fe’s Community Forest Initiative:
In 2012, the Railyard Stewards, the City of Santa Fe and the State of New Mexico Forestry Division entered into a citizen process to define a Community Forestry Plan for the City of Santa Fe. The goal of the project is to identify the forest, to identify the stakeholders, and to conduct roundtable discussions designed to build consensus, for future strategies to improve the health of our community forest.
Just as there is an eastern property line along the foothills of Santa Fe, above which there is defined a National Forest. That same property line also defines an area downhill, and within all City limits, that we call the Community Forest. Our community forest is the entire collection of trees and landscape plants growing within our urban area. It includes all of the trees and plants growing in the residential neighborhoods, commercial developments, and public lands.
Many climate experts are predicting climate changes over the next 20 years which could greatly stress existing trees unless they are optimally managed. A drier and warmer climate will increase the fire risk to the native pinion pine and juniper stands within our forest, and increase the risk of drought stress to all trees in our community. As the predicted significant climate change occurs, it will be a challenge to Santa Fe’s community forest. Santa Fe is a city with a proud cultural heritage. Our landscape is a strong part of our heritage. Preserving our heritage is essential in any plan for the future of Santa Fe’s forest.
Urban and community forests are different from indigenous forests in that they are, to a large degree, “man-made” forests. Home and business owners plant this forest as we landscape our residential and commercial properties. We buy the trees from local garden centers and nurseries, who in turn buy the trees from other wholesale nurseries all around the country. The trees that are grown and sold through this national business network are selected by tree experts and thought to be excellent species for growing in our local environments. But these trees are primarily selected for their ornamental qualities. After they are planted, the trees in a community forest are maintained by a combination of homeowners doing their own landscape care and commercial businesses specializing in the care of trees and plants. Therefore education of our leaders, our nurseries, and our property owners are all an important part of the future health plan of our trees.
Santa Fe’s existing forest is a blend of indigenous and man-made forest that is somewhat unusual for the American southwest. The existing Santa Fe community forest includes large populations of native pinion pine and one-seed juniper. In the older sections of the City our forest is made up of a very high proportion of Siberian elms as shade trees—perhaps as high as 70-80 percent. Siberian Elms were introduced to the western United States almost 100 years ago as a cold hardy and drought tolerant tree that could be used for windbreaks on farmsteads and as shade trees in communities. It has proven to be a highly invasive tree. A single species being dominant in a community forest is not desirable, because it is more susceptible to loss of all trees.
In the areas of the City that have been developed since the 1970’s the community forest is made up of diverse species of shade, ornamental, and evergreens trees—typical of the varieties of trees sold by local garden centers and nurseries throughout this period of the City’s development. The health of these trees appears to vary widely. Some have been stressed by watering restrictions, and related reductions of landscape irrigation by homeowners concerned about high water bills. An inventory of Santa Fe’s Community Forest has begun, but will take several years to complete. It will provide more detailed information regarding species, age, and conditions.
Scientists studying urban ecosystems are suggesting community forests can be designed and managed to greatly increase their water and air purification, carbon sequestration, and support of species diversity, and ecosystem complexity. Studies of these inter-related systems will all be part of our current and future goals. Our immediate attention will be focused on creative education, funding, and adaptable community understanding.