Serious Forest Health Problem Must Be Addressed

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The 2009 fire season is coming to a close in Arizona. Thankfully, Arizona has again been spared from large fires, but we cannot become complacent. There is still a serious forest health problem that we must work to address.

The good news is that there is a proven solution — it’s called “restoration.”

The goal of the restoration process is to return forests, such as our southwestern ponderosa pine forest, to the condition they were in about a hundred years ago. Back then, forests were naturally subject to frequent, low-intensity fires.

These fires maintained forest structure and function, eliminating underbrush accumulation and high tree density. However, once a policy of aggressive fire suppression began, forests became dense and overgrown and decades of underbrush piled up, providing the conditions for large and unnaturally severe crown fires, bark beetle outbreaks, and declining biodiversity.

Restoration is a comprehensive process that consists of two key steps. The first is preliminary thinning of smaller diameter trees and removal of brush. This step significantly reduces fuel for fires, allows understory grasses and plant life to return, and helps prevent fires from burning too “hot,” something that is characteristic of destructive crown fires.

After appropriate thinning has been done, the next step involves the introduction of safe, prescribed burns into the forest; these burns further reduce excess fuel on the forest floor that would otherwise help spread wildfire. Once a forest has been “restored” using these two steps, it has the resiliency to withstand naturally occurring fires.

The restoration process has already achieved success in Arizona’s forests. Perhaps the best known example is located outside of Flagstaff in the Fort Valley Experimental Forest in the Coconino National Forest. But not all the restoration work has been experimental. The Forest Service and other federal and state agencies have joined local stakeholders in collaboratively planning and implementing restoration across northern Arizona for many years — one need only drive through the communities along the Mogollon Rim to see it — and every fire season we witness restoration’s effectiveness.

Awareness of the solution is not enough. We have already restored thousands of acres, but there are millions of acres throughout Arizona in need of treatment — far more than we have the money and the resources to treat.

So what can we do?

We need to move beyond small area treatments and work to implement restoration on a landscape scale. This process will require planning and implementing projects on the order of hundreds of thousands of acres. Doing so will result in efficiencies that could bring the costs of restoration down and spur the return of industry, thereby allowing more acres to be treated.

This will take putting aside differences that have typically resulted in obstructive litigation, and focusing efforts to use and build upon the many years of collaboration, scientific discovery, and land management successes that have made Arizona a leader in forest health.

It will also take the support of the Obama administration and Congress. I look forward to doing my part to help that happen.

Sen. Jon Kyl is the Senate Republican Whip and serves on the Senate Finance and Judiciary committees. Visit his Web site at www.kyl.senate.gov or his YouTube channel at www.youtube.com/senjonkyl.

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