When Regional Forester Harv Forsgren surveyed the bark beetle damage in the Pine area on his first visit to the Rim country recently, he was taken aback.
"It was pretty eye-opening to just look at the amount of fuels in and around that community," Forsgren said. "Pretty frightening."
Forsgren, who is in charge of all the national forests in New Mexico and Arizona as well as the grasslands in the panhandles of Oklahoma and Texas, assumed his duties 13 months ago. He came to the Rim country for a firsthand look.
"Fires and bark beetles -- both those things affect the forest and provide unique threats to your communities that we're pretty concerned about," he said. "That's what brings me here."
During his two-day visit to the Rim country, Forsgren also met with local elected officials and other agency representatives, both state and federal, to try and bring more assistance to the area. He admits that many he talked to are frustrated by the lack of action on the part of the Forest Service to date.
"I completely empathize with people being frustrated," he said. "People live here because of the setting, and to look out as I did today over that valley and see the thousands of acres of orange trees, that just breaks your heart, and you'd like to see action. The thing that is difficult for people to realize is that once we get a beetle working a stand of trees like that, there really is little we can do to preclude or prevent them from continuing to work that stand. But we can take action to remove the fire danger by removing that material and I am completely empathetic about how slow that's happening."
Forsgren assessed the past fire season.
"Basically, we dodged a bullet," he said. "We really stacked up some pre-positioned resources so when we got ignitions we could deal with them, and we were very successful this year doing that. But that's kind of a stopgap measure."
Forsgren echoed a common theme -- that successful fire suppression efforts have interfered with nature's natural processes.
"We have been so successful historically putting out fires that we've missed four or five fire cycles with these forests and the fuels continue to build, and when you have that fire you can't put out on initial attack then we have the situation we saw last year with Rodeo-Chediski," he said. "But in the meantime, until we get the fuels reduced, we have to keep up that suppression level."
Although western forests share common problems, each area needs to be addressed individually, Forsgren said.
"The issue of where to go is different for different communities," Forsgren said. "I'm here to understand what the needs are for this community, what the interests are in this community, and then we'll try to figure out ways that we might be able to advance those interests that are compatible with our mission of caring for the national forests."
Forsgren emphasized that the time to take action is sooner rather than later.
"Last year in Arizona and New Mexico, we reduced fuel loading or thinned the forest on about 80,000 acres," he said. "That's just a pittance. We need to be working on the scale of hundreds of thousands of acres a year rather than a few tens of thousands."
For that reason, Forsgren wants to forge coalitions.
"It's not a job we can do by ourselves obviously, so we're very interested in working with the state, with local municipalities also to address this problem, and also with private citizens because there is much of this that's going to have to be done on private property," he said. "People are going to have to accept some responsibility for protecting their own investments."
Prescribed, broadcast burns begin
The Payson Ranger District of the Tonto National Forest will begin its proactive program of prescribed burns as soon as conditions permit in many areas throughout the Rim country, according to Gary Roberts, district fire prevention officer.
"We want to try and get ahead of the game, so we will start as early as this week," Roberts said.
Areas slated for pile and broadcast burning include Whispering Pines, Rim Trail, Verde Glen, Ellison Creek, Pine, Strawberry, Hunter Creek, Christopher Creek, Camp Geronimo, Webber Creek, Gordon Canyon, Diamond Point and Tonto Village.
In addition, a prescribed burn will be conducted in the upper and lower Round Valley areas to reduce the buildup of brush and chaparral.
For more information on these burns, call the Payson Ranger District at (928) 474-7900.