How does Arizona stop a catastrophic wildfire? The answer lies in low-value trees

·4 min read
Two pieces of forest land near Flagstaff show what the area looked life before thinning (left) and after.
Two pieces of forest land near Flagstaff show what the area looked life before thinning (left) and after.

Arizona’s early start to the wildfire season is just the latest example of suffering the consequences of the 20th century strategy that suppressed blazes and let forests grow abnormally dense. Add historic drought, extreme heat and the results are predictable.

Yet it’s not too late to make northern Arizona’s forests more resilient and resistant to fire. Doing so also brings the added benefit of increasing water supplies and battling climate change.

Efforts are under way. A public-private partnership launched the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, or 4FRI, with a goal of restoring 2.4 million acres of national forest land. The program, for a variety of reasons, has never come close to reaching its annual goals.

Work by The Nature Conservancy in partnership with industry and the U.S. Forest Service has identified a suite of business practices and innovative efficiencies that may allow the initiative to achieve its potential and make efficient use of new federal funding.

How do we thin low-value trees? We're experimenting

Harvested timber is loaded into a log truck after being delivered by a helicopter during the first phase of the Bill Williams Mountain restoration project.
Harvested timber is loaded into a log truck after being delivered by a helicopter during the first phase of the Bill Williams Mountain restoration project.

4FRI originally sought to thin the Coconino, Kaibab, Apache-Sitgreaves and Tonto national forests by removing specific small-diameter trees. The value of these trees is extremely low; in many cases they cost more to remove than their value as a wood product. Because these small trees have limited financial value, contractors were reluctant to take on the job.

Another view: New 4FRI plan could thin more forest acres – for now

To overcome this challenge, The Nature Conservancy has been working to identify and test new approaches to business as usual that will create efficiencies for both the Forest Service and industry partners.

These include innovations in site preparation, harvesting and managing on the ground restoration activities, all of which will incentivize contractors to work in the 4FRI program. For instance, new technology allows the Forest Service to provide digital instructions to wood harvesters that help guide which trees to remove – replacing a labor- and resource-intensive paint-marking method.

In short, The Nature Conservancy operates much like a learning laboratory and tests various efficiencies with the intent of saving money and time for the forest industry. Another example of this is the use of waivers to remove overly burdensome requirements associated with harvesting trees, typical in northern Arizona, that have little to no value.

Less intense fires, more snowmelt if we do this

The more quickly northern Arizona forests are thinned, the more quickly we all reap the benefits:

  • Wildfires will still occur as part of natural cycles, but they will be far less intense. Forests will be more resilient and healthier, and rural communities, watershed and recreation areas will be safer.

  • A thinned forest allows more snowmelt and rainfall to reach the forest floor, sink into the ground and feed streams and aquifers – an increase of as much as 20%.

  • Large-scale thinning helps in the fight against climate change. With less competition for water and sunlight, trees grow larger and absorb more carbon. By reducing the intensity of fires, carbon remains in the trees instead of being released as sky-darkening smoke.

  • If the Coconino and Kaibab national forests were thinned by 2032, the amount of carbon stored would be equivalent to removing 110,000 vehicles from the road every year.

Thanks to the leadership of Sens. Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly and with the support of Reps. Tom O’Halloran, Ruben Gallego, Greg Stanton, Raúl Grijalva and Ann Kirkpatrick, we have the resources to do this vital work.

We have resources, but it takes a sustained effort

The bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act includes $3.4 billion over the next five years for wildfire-risk reduction. Arizona is one of 10 states slated to receive this money.

Restoring Arizona and the West’s forests, however, is a multidecade project.

No one wants to see another Schultz Fire. Another Museum Fire. Another Wallow Fire. Another Rodeo-Chediski fire.

The best way to prevent them is to restore Arizona’s ponderosa pine forests to their natural, healthy state.

That will take money, and it will take a sustained effort using smart, cost-effective business practices to enable large-scale thinning.

Daniel Stellar is state director of The Nature Conservancy in Arizona, whose program, Arizona Thrives, is a statewide alliance committed to moving from carbon-based fuels to clean energy to drive our economy. Reach him at daniel.stellar@TNC.ORG.

This article originally appeared on Arizona Republic: Arizona has 2 big things to make forests more fire resistant

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