Sometimes, common sense can prove maddeningly uncommon. So when common sense triumphs, it’s cause for uncommon celebration.
We can’t think of a better example than the agreement between environmentalists, public officials and loggers to save the forest, reported on today’s front page.
The consensus at the heart of the 4-Forest Restoration Project makes perfect sense. But the decade of bickering, lawsuits, allegations and anger on all sides underscores the fragility of mere common sense.
The problem was dire — but not all that complicated.
A century of mismanagement has converted millions of acres of forest in central Arizona into a tinderbox. Overgrazing, clear-cutting and simple-minded fire suppression transformed a fire-resistant, grassy forest with about 50 trees per acre into a stunted, fire-prone thicket with about 1,000 trees per acre.
Moreover, communities like Payson, Pine, Strawberry, Tonto Village and Christopher Creek have grown rapidly from old homesteads. Now they’re completely surrounded by dense forests, with disaster just a spark away.
The 500,000-acre Rodeo-Chediski Fire underscored the danger, consuming hundreds of homes, forcing evacuation of whole towns and shocking forest managers and forest dwellers out of decades of foolish complacency.
The answer has been obvious for years. We need to restore forest ecosystems by returning fire to its natural role. We can’t simply let the now badly overgrown forest burn, so we must embrace a massive, carefully executed thinning program.
And that is only possible if we reinvent the timber industry, so sawmills can make a profit on turning billions of small trees into fuel pellets and pressed-wood products.
Yet, for years the groups that should have formed an alliance fought one another to a disastrous standoff.
Still in the grip of a timber harvest mentality, the Forest Service stubbornly tried to give away the last of the big trees. The conservationists fought back with paralyzing lawsuits, knowing that restoring forest health relied on saving the big trees that comprise less than 3 percent of the existing pines.
Several years ago, a working group representing all of the major factions began a series of seemingly endless meetings and studies in an effort to forge a consensus.
Now, finally, they’ve succeeded.
The key lay in the agreement by the timber interests to let stand most of the remaining trees larger than 16 inches in diameter and a commitment by the environmentalists to support the thinning contracts aimed at restoring forest health.
Not only will the agreement likely result in tens of thousands of new jobs and revive a once vital economic driver in Rim Country — it will restore forest health and ease the terrible threat wildfires pose to many forest communities.
It remains only for the Forest Service to embrace the plan and implement it.
But heck: What could go wrong? It’s just common sense. Unfortunately, uncommonly common.
Saved by the finagle
A happy ending. And a bitter lesson. That’s what emerged this week from the last-minute finagle that saved a program that allows thousands of adults to acquire their high school degrees each year — including 200 people from Gila County.
Alas, the pasted together happy ending only underscores the Legislature’s irresponsibility — and the futility of some of the budget decisions they’ve made lately.
Specifically, the Legislature cut its $4.4-million contribution to a mostly federal program that helps adults get their high school diplomas. That budget cut seemed sure to cost Arizona residents $12 million in federal matching funds.
Society reaps a rich return on a high school diploma. Such a degree increases family wealth 10-fold. One estimate suggests that if all the high school dropouts had gotten a diploma the nation would be $74 billion richer.
Moreover, a high school dropout can expect to earn an average of $18,700 annually while a high school graduate will average $28,000. But consider all the extra taxes the state collects when a taxpayer goes back for that high school diploma. Fortunately, at the last minute, Pima Community College, Rio Salado Community College and a stimulus grant provided the needed matching funds.
So now thousands of citizens will have a chance to better themselves — and we’ll all do better as a result.
Except maybe the Arizona Legislature — which didn’t deserve the happy ending and does not appear to have learned the bitter lesson.