When Americans Care, Great Things Happen

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"It is through cooperation, rather than conflict, that your greatest successes will be derived." --Unknown

America's forests, especially in the interior West, are at grave risk. Despite the best intentions of the past, the U.S. Forest Service and many segments of American society made some big mistakes.

Aggressive suppression of all wildfires during the latter half of the 20th century has resulted, in many cases, in thicker, denser stands of thinner, smaller trees where disease and insect outbreak are all too common. According to the Forest Service, the Government Accounting Office, and independent forestry scientists, an estimated 73 million acres of national forests are on the verge of ecological collapse. The problem developed over many decades and won't be rectified in a day.

Of all the contributing factors to this unhealthy condition, none looms larger than the fact that far too many trees crowd our forests. Forests in the Southwest 150 years ago, depending on location, were up to several hundred times less dense than they are today. The moisture, nutrient reserves, and growing space needed to sustain the explosive growth of the past 85 years or so does not exist in Southwestern forests ---- and it never has.

It is easy and comfortable to play the blame game, but it subtly shifts our focus away from the here and now and away from what really needs to be done. It also incites division that squanders valuable time that could be better utilized working on a collaborative solution. The blame game always generates a lot more heat than it does light.

The foundation of a free nation is laid upon diverse opinion and robust debate. It is essential, however, that we restrain our ulterior motives and lay aside our personal agendas in order to re-discover the inherent and time-tested benefits of working together for the common welfare. We often busy ourselves squabbling over the arrangement of lounge furniture on the Lido deck, while the ship is sinking.

In 2001, the Payson Ranger District began implementation of a long-range, far-reaching, landscape-scale, three-pronged fuels reduction strategy. The achievable goal is to reduce catastrophic wildfire danger in the wild land urban interface, to initiate the restoration of natural ecological systems, and to develop and foster sustainable forest conditions. Since our plan's inception, we have tenaciously pursued the cultivation of relationships in order to encourage an atmosphere of understanding and cooperation with the public, as well as with other agencies and entities in Rim Country.

Since implementing our strategy in 2001, we have successfully thinned more than 8,000 acres on difficult, critical, high priority acres on lands adjacent to communities throughout our district. Additionally, we have treated more than 20,000 acres with prescribed fire. Early in 2005, we were invited to speak in Albuquerque at the Quivira Coalition's "Half Public, Half Private, One West" conference. The Quivira Coalition was formed in New Mexico to provide a positive and non-threatening forum for ranchers, environmental groups, and federal and state agencies to discuss land management issues and work toward collaborative solutions.

In 2004, as part of our long-range strategy, we created a 330-foot wide fuel break completely around Pine and Strawberry. Unfortunately, our district lacked funding in 2006 to maintain that fuel break. Early in 2006, property owners in Pine and Strawberry resuscitated the great American "can do" spirit in a truly remarkable display of cooperative community resolve. To our astonishment, people from those two mountain hamlets quickly stepped up to the plate and donated $78,000 in order to help us accomplish our district fuels reduction objectives.

That quickly ignited further citizen enthusiasm and soon the town of Payson, Gila County, local homeowner associations, the Tonto Apache Tribe, the Central Arizona Board of Realtors, East Verde Park, and others chipped in financially to help us accomplish our district objectives for fuel breaks. In 2006 alone, an astounding sum of nearly $335,000 was donated or contributed to help us accomplish our fuels reduction strategy!

We have worked diligently to meet all of the legal requirements for future thinning and prescribed burning projects. Those projects, pending funding, will treat another 150,000 acres on the Payson Ranger District. We have made unprecedented strides since 2001, but we haven't done it alone. We are humbled and our morale is greatly bolstered by the countless people, agencies, and entities that encouraged us and helped us in incalculable ways to move forward in our quest to reduce catastrophic wildfire danger and to restore forest health.

In late February of this year, Sally Collins, the Associate Chief and Chief Operating Officer for the U.S. Forest Service in Washington, D.C., paid an uncommon visit to the Payson Ranger District. She was impressed with our fuels reduction program and the atmosphere of cooperation that has been fostered in Rim Country to reduce catastrophic wildfire danger. Before her departure, she made the comment that she was unaware of anywhere in the nation where this level of cooperation exists.

We've made quantum leaps since 2001, but our district fuels reduction strategy is not yet fully manifested. We just received $1.6 million to continue our landscape-scale strategy for fuels reduction. We immediately put that money into contract the week of Oct. 1, 2007. We hit the ground on Oct. 6 to continue reducing fuels on our district in our ongoing quest to move communities in Rim Country out of harm's way and to restore forest health. Many heartfelt thanks for helping us to breathe new life into an atrophied American muscle of cooperation for the common benefit. When Americans care, great things happen.

For further information, reference our fuels reduction program that has received national recognition at: http://www.forestandrangelands.gov/success/stories/2006/nfp_2006_q3_az_fs_tnfprd_fuelsreduction.shtml or http://www.forestandrangelands.gov/ success/documents/06_AZ_FS_Bray_Creek_Treatment_hfr.pdf

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