BY JODY BENSON
Tom Ribe’s letter, “Time for LANL to stop brutal vegetation management on SR4,” brings up yet again the issue of LANL’s commitment to environmental protection and sustainability. As the Lab does excellent fire science, it often seems as if it ignores its own science for expediency.
At about 45,605 Acres—one of the “smaller” burns last year—fighting the Cerro Pelado Fire cost the state more than $40 million. That $40M, however, did not include the costs for LANL’s ongoing operations to mitigate risks to power lines.
During Cerro Pelado, LANL/Triad commenced emergency operations to mitigate wildfire risk by cutting all trees and shrubs around LANL power lines. NEPA allows a 25-foot clearance around distribution lines. Understandably, leaning or dead trees that fall outside the 25-foot clearance but still pose a risk should be removed. LANL, however, removed many large, straight, mature ponderosas outside the easement. The Pajarito Group of the Sierra Club sent a letter to Director Thom Mason requesting an accounting of how this tree removal was covered by LANL’s existing NEPA.
Here’s the problem. Despite the twenty years of drought and the wildfires near LANL property, LANL continues to erect new overhead power lines in heavily forested areas when underground options would be more safe and secure. For example, in one area a new segment was added several years ago that “threaded the needle” between many mature ponderosas. Now LANL has locked these large pines for removal.
In Los Alamos Canyon LANL maintains a live overhead power line in a heavily forested area in the north-facing canyon bottom. This line has caused at least three ignitions. Trees 100 feet or more upslope from this line could be removed because of the possibility of their falling on the line. LANL crews are currently cutting beautiful, hundred- year-old-plus ponderosas under the line. You can count the rings.
In Lower Water Canyon, previously forested with old growth timber, LANL built new overhead segments that could have been trenched from State Route 4 and undergrounded on the existing access road. As in all areas “behind the fence,” we don’t know how many trees were removed or how many additional “hazard” trees LANL will remove.
We asked LANL: Why weren’t power lines undergrounded on all new segments? With LANL’s annual operating budget nearing $4 billion ($4.6B this year), why is the Lab not undergrounding utilities across the site? The answer? There are too many archaeological resources and it’s too expensive.
Forestry management at LANL is a critical part of environmental stewardship on behalf of the public and Pueblos with ancestral ties to this land. We all expect a strong forestry program that manages not only wildfire risk but also forest health. Undergrounding Forestry management at LANL is a critical part of environmental stewardship on behalf of the public and Pueblos with ancestral ties to this land. We all expect a strong forestry program that manages not only wildfire risk but also forest health. Undergrounding power lines may cost more today but will save millions for LANL and Los Alamos in the future as the Earth continues to burn.