PHOENIX — Ponderosa pine forests have been allowed to grow so dense that they are primed to spawn immense wildfires that threaten not just trees and wildlife but watersheds, a Northern Arizona University forestry expert said Tuesday.
Unless the situation is addressed, the conditions could lead to a drastic reduction or even obliteration of those forests in the near future, William Wallace “Wally” Covington, a professor and executive director of NAU’s Ecological Restoration Institute, said after addressing the House Environment Committee.
“This is a huge problem; we have much less time than we thought,” he said.
Covington told lawmakers that Arizona’s forests, particularly ponderosa pine forests such as those along the Mogollon Rim, have been allowed to develop far more trees than they would naturally. That leads to wildfires that can destroy hundreds of thousands of acres, with the 2003 Rodeo-Chediski Fire as an example, he said.
Fires of that magnitude lead to erosion, which affects watersheds, Covington said. Forests in western Colorado and western New Mexico, other watershed areas for Arizona’s water supply, are in a similar condition, he said.
“We have to help the forests become self-regulating again,” Covington said.
In their natural state, he said, the forests would see fires that burn along the ground and preserve larger trees.
But a solution isn’t as simple as thinning forests, Covington said. He said the public and the state and federal governments need to understand the degree of the danger and agree on a plan of action.
“It isn’t an ecological problem; it’s a sociopolitical, ecological problem,” Covington said.
For example, Covington said any plan should educate those living in and around forests or relying on the health of the forests about the danger. Computerized modeling and simulations could help do this, he said.
Current programs to thin forests have been too small and are concentrated in places that are easily accessible but not most in need of treatment, he said.
Failing to act now, even in tough economic times, will have dire consequences, Covington said.
“The future is pretty grim for our grandchildren and even our children,” he said.
At the suggestion of Rep. Ray Barnes, R-Phoenix, the committee’s chairman, members agreed to form a subcommittee dealing with the health of Arizona’s forests.