The Arizona Republic recently ran several stories about efforts to thin forests in northern Arizona to protect the area from the damage, and the monetary and human cost, of wildfires. Source:AZCentral
The efforts described are commendable and necessary. Removing dead wood, dry brush and grasses will save lives, prevent millions of dollars in damages and boost biodiversity by withholding the fuel from wildfires.
It’s clear funding such efforts will reap rewards, sometimes in ways you might not expect. For example, the Natural Resource Working Group — a collaboration of local and state governments, state and federal land management agencies, forest product and livestock industries, environmentalists, recreation industries and universities, including the University of Arizona — launched more than 20 years ago to address the devastation of forest fires.
The group sought to identify and implement science-based solutions to reduce the number and intensity of wildfires, save lives, property and watersheds, as well as return forests to healthy, diverse and economically productive ecosystems.
But to be successful, the effort needed funding and sites to test the science. The US Forest Service provided the working group with access to 12,000-forested acres in 1998 to try new forest restoration concepts.
The effort eventually evolved into the White Mountain Stewardship Project and realized success: 70,000 acres of previously dense degraded forest were on the road to healthy diversity and thinned effectively to help mitigate low-intensity, ground and crown wildfires.
Since then, several large wildfires have affected the White Mountains, and the areas managed by the working group did markedly better than those that were not.
When the San Juan Fire reached this treated area last June, it changed abruptly from a high-intensity crown fire to a low-intensity ground fire.
The initial investment in infrastructure in the working group was US$130 million in federal money. That now provides more than US$20 million annually in new regional income and more than 300 jobs for local families.
Just like investing in roads and bridges, this has proven to be a prudent investment with an effective return many times over.
In 2013, Navajo and Apache counties took over the working group, ensuring the work would continue and be managed by the local community. This program, and programs like it, serves as a national model and should be expanded for use in other fire-vulnerable states.
Another program in the works to help with forest fire prevention is FireScape a collaboration between federal and state land managers, conservation groups and the University of Arizona.
If funded, FireScape would save hundreds of thousands of forested acres through the safe reintroduction of small, controlled fires.
The cromnibus budget bill recently passed by Congress included US$3.5 billion for wildfire fighting and prevention within the Department of the Interior and the Forest Service budgets.
This is an important investment in forest fire prevention and mitigation, and one that allows investment meant for forest management to stay there. Another piece of legislation, the McCain-Flake FLAME Act Amendments will likely be reintroduced early in the next Congress.
It will bolster Forest Service and Department of Interior budgets with dedicated funding for wildfire management and suppression under FEMA’s disaster relief fund. It sets a national goal of thinning 7.5 million acres, increases Forest Service fire prevention activities and focuses on economic development — investment that could positively affect our ecosystems and our families.