When it comes to wildfires, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. This old adage holds true particularly in Arizona’s fire-prone ponderosa pine and dry mixed-conifer forests.
Two weeks ago, I toured several forest restoration sites inside the Flagstaff Wildland Urban Interface with Jim Hubbard, the Undersecretary for Natural Resources and the Environment at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and Chris French, the Deputy Chief of the Forest Service. Our fact-finding mission focused on recent progress made by their Arizona partners to restore our forests to a natural, fire-adapted state.
Together, we observed national forest lands that are healthier and more resilient than they were just a few years ago because of smart management. We saw local stakeholders working to prevent another deadly flood like the one that sent roaring mudslides into the communities of Timberline and Doney Park after the Schultz Fire in 2010. We drove to the base of Mt. Elden where nearly 4,000 acres have been treated as a result of Flagstaff citizens’ financial commitment to protecting the community’s homes, schools, and businesses.
On the west end of town near the Fort Valley Trailhead, we observed an environmental nonprofit, The Nature Conservancy, teaming with timber sale consultants at Campbell Global to implement a 1,600-acre forest stewardship agreement. Forestry experts there are utilizing GPS tablet technology to improve the cost-effectiveness and efficiency of mechanical treatment projects, clearing small diameter trees and brush.
These achievements make Flagstaff safer from wildfire and dispel fears that forest thinning is unsightly or environmentally damaging. They are proof positive that local and non-federal parties can successfully and responsibly partner with the Forest Service to better manage national forest lands.
In the past, the benefits of active forests restoration were not as obvious. I was one of the principal authors of the Healthy Forests Restoration Act of 2003, the seminal legislation that expanded Forest Service authority to thin overstocked and drought-stressed forests. At the time, the initiative was decried by some critics as a ruse to clear-cut old growth trees. Fifteen years later, and after more than 5 million acres of Arizona’s forests have been consumed by wildfire, there is scientific and social consensus: our forests must be thinned to restore their environment to a healthy state.
Today, the public debate over forest health centers around ways to make large, landscape-scale restoration projects cost-effective and operationally efficient — the type of work that is necessary to treat 2.4 million acres under the Four Forests Restoration Initiative.
I discussed this challenge with my guests from USDA and Forest Service, and it is clear that the federal government must do more.
The Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest needs a reliable source of timber so that the nascent wood products industry in eastern Arizona can build a viable partnership with the Forest Service.
On the Kaibab National Forest, the only way to save the City of Williams from a devastating Schultz-like disaster is to urgently treat 15,000 acres on the Bill Williams Mountain. Coconino County is willing to finance a fuel reduction project on Bill Williams, but Congress and the Forest Service must give county governments the same “Good Neighbor Authority” used by state governments to perform forest management services on federal land. I am supporting efforts to secure this authority in the 2018 Farm Bill.
Lastly, the Forest Service should maintain the momentum of the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project by preparing Mormon Mountain for treatment while the City works to secure financing for its remaining 3,000 acre project.
Arizona has embraced prevention and is ready to work with the Forest Service to make our state safer from wildfire.