Guest column by Diane Brossart, president of Valley Forward Association.
Environmentalists have historically advocated for planting and saving trees. However, scientists are suggesting a paradigm shift in our approach to managing forest fires and preserving our ecosystem. Cutting down smaller trees, they say, is actually good for the forest environment.
Past studies have shown that much of Arizona’s ponderosa pine forests have hundreds of trees more per acre than existed prior to 1900. These overcrowded forests are affecting the natural processes of a healthy ecosystem and have had dramatic impacts on the hydrologic cycle. Where fire was once a welcome visitor to the forest in helping to thin trees and recycle nutrients, it is now prone to explode into a catastrophic stand-replacing wildfire. The continuing effects of climate change are likely only to make matters worse.
Arizona is leading the way with the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI), an unprecedented program to treat 2.4 million acres of overcrowded ponderosa pine across the Mongollon Rim. The program brings together conservationists, scientists, industry representatives and community leaders from 20 stakeholder groups as well as the U.S. Forest Service to work toward restoring the Apache-Sitgreaves, Coconino, Kaibab and Tonto national forests. It is an ambitious effort to treat 50,000 acres of forest annually during the next 20 years to reduce fire threat while creating sustainable forest industries.
A dangerous combination of strong winds, high temperatures and low humidity make Arizona’s forests extremely dry and at risk for severe wildfires. Fire season started with a bang last month with the onset of five forest fires – two of which, the Gladiator and Sunflower Fires, are still burning. And, although fire restrictions have been in effect across much of Arizona since mid-May, three additional fires appeared in the Coconino National Forest over the Memorial Day Weekend.
It is now one year after the largest wildfire in Arizona history and the communities and forest in northeastern Arizona are slowly on their way to recovery. The Wallow fire started on May 29, 2011, near the Bear Wallow Wilderness area in eastern Arizona and was not fully contained until July 8. The fire ripped through more than 500,000 acres and burned down some 30 homes. In addition to a contract to re-plant 30,000 trees, the forest service is working on thinning the existing trees in both the green and salvage areas to help the growth of new vegetation and trees as well as prevent the rapid spread of wildfires in the future.
The 4FRI recognizes the importance of restoring our forests to a more natural and healthy composition of fire-adapted ecosystems. Forest restoration provides for fuels reduction, forest health, and wildlife and plant diversity. This important collaboration will not only help protect precious landscapes and the Valley’s water supply, but will generate jobs and enhance our local economy. Economists working with the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University predict the nation’s largest forest restoration effort will create 300 full-time private-sector jobs.
The Four Forest Restoration Initiative is a win-win situation that is good for the environment and the economy, protecting water supplies and creating jobs.