Time To End Forest Wars



Andy Towle/Roundup atowle@payson.com

Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick walks with USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack on his tour of the Rim Country forest thinning project to protect Christopher Creek.

Seasons change.

So do people.

Sometimes even bureaucracies.

So we couldn’t help feeling a flush of hope this weekend as a result of Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack’s whirlwind tour of Rim Country’s thickset, fire-prone forests.

The head of the second largest employer in the world arrived to have a look at the result of years of effort that seems to have produced an end to the “forest wars” — at least here in Rim Country.

The discussions focused on a remarkable agreement involving both environmentalists and timber industry officials to put loggers back to work harvesting some 2.6 million acres of forest — in a way that will actually restore forest health.

We congratulate Payson Mayor Kenny Evans and Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick for engineering the politically vital visit — and hope Secretary Vilsack will both support this historic effort and use it as a model to apply elsewhere.

The collaboration represents a vital shift from decades of conflict, as timber companies and their Forest Service patrons went after all the big trees against the tenacious opposition of environmentalists and conservationists.

No one won that terrible war of attrition — least of all the forest. The Forest Service lost public support, the environmentalists won a host of enemies, the timber companies all went out of business — and we ended up with a fire-prone forest choked with thickets of saplings.

Now the various factions have come to rough agreement about the need to dramatically reduce tree densities on the four national forests in Arizona’s high country. Even if the loggers don’t touch the big trees vital to forest health, they can harvest more than 800 million board feet of timber and feed 8 million tons of brush into the maws of biofuel plants. That effort could create 13,000 jobs and $1.1 billion worth of forest products — while leaving the forest much healthier and less fire prone than it is now.

The participants gave the former Iowa governor a crash course in forest ecology and restoration — and he appeared an apt and eager pupil.

We hope that seeming understanding translates into strong support for the Four Forests initiative — a plan to thin thousands of acres of buffers around fire-threatened communities with the help of a reconstituted timber industry. That requires support for a network of mills that can utilize small diameter trees and for biofuels plants. Such a viable network will require reliable, long-term contracts for wood that will enable those mills and power plants to operate profitably.

Of course, we’ve been fooled by early thaws — and punished by freak storms before. We’ve only seen the first green shoots of a new way of doing things. But after so long a public policy winter, that first flush of green is no small thing.


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