New Mexico closes national forest to public due to drought, fire risk

(Reuters) - The U.S. Forest Service said on Thursday it has taken the rare step of indefinitely closing off public access to a 1.6 million-acre national forest in northern New Mexico because of fire risks posed by prolonged drought in the region.

FILE PHOTO: Yellow tape is seen by the fire origin spot during the Wilson Fire near Mount Wilson in the Angeles National Forest in Los Angeles, California, U.S. October 17, 2017. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni/File Photo

The closure prohibits all recreational activities inside Santa Fe National Forest starting on Friday, putting wilderness areas, campgrounds, trails and roads off limits to visitors until the region receives “significant moisture,” the agency said in a statement.

The only exception is the Rio Chama Wild and Scenic River corridor running through the forest, the agency said.

Officials banned all camp fires in the forest in early May due to dry conditions but in recent weeks workers found 120 camp fires left unattended, including at least 84 over the Memorial Day holiday weekend alone. That weekend marks the start of the summer travel season.

Forest Supervisor James Melonas said “widespread noncompliance” with the fire ban prompted officials to take more drastic measures.

“Under current conditions, one abandoned campfire could cause a catastrophic wildfire, and we are not willing to take that chance with the natural and cultural resources under our protection and care,” Melonas said in a statement.

The sprawling forest, known for its scenic canyons, mesas and mountain peaks, spans six counties in New Mexico, which is in the grip of either extreme or exceptional drought conditions, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Drought Monitor.

Forest service spokesman Bruce Hill said by telephone a full closure of the forest was unusual and the last time it was shut down to the public was in 2013, when three wildfires were already burning there.

The precise scope of the economic impact was unclear but, according to figures from the state Tourism Department in 2016, visitors spent $1.3 billion in the six counties.

County and state roads that traverse the area and are not managed by the Forest Service will remain open and residents, firefighters, Native American tribes and others with permission to be in the forest are exempt from the order.

Village of Jemez Springs Mayor Roger Sweet, whose community relies on tourism dollars, said area businesses would remain open.

“Although a closure does affect our local economy, if a wildfire destroys the forest, we have no economy,” Sweet said.

Anyone found guilty of violating the closure, a misdemeanor offense, could be fined up to $5,000 for individuals and $10,000 for organizations.

Reporting by Keith Coffman in Denver; Editing by Steve Gorman and Paul Tait