The Schultz, Hardy and Eagle Rock fires have been etched into the collective consciousness of northern Arizona’s residents and visitors.
The blazes traumatized evacuees, put hundreds of firefighters in harm’s way, scorched thousands of acres of key wildlife habitat, damaged watersheds, and created radical, long-term changes throughout our communities’ back yards.
These fires, which occurred despite the past winter’s record snowfalls, have reminded us in no uncertain terms that northern Arizona’s ponderosa pine forests are in need of ecological restoration and thoughtful fuels reduction — in areas surrounding communities, where lives, structures, and neighborhood well-being is at stake, and in more remote forest areas where large and unnaturally severe fires can threaten the very ecosystems and associated values we care deeply about.
Based on past experiences and an awareness of Arizona’s forest conditions, we knew these fires would come — if not this year, soon.
We have worked diligently to protect communities from wildfire through ongoing thinning and controlled burning treatments. The work accomplished, however, has been small compared to the scale of recent fires. Simply put, our proactive efforts are not keeping pace with our forests’ needs, and we are paying the price — in the case of the Schultz Fire, $10 million for suppression and an estimated $3 million for rehabilitation, enough money to thin and safely burn the area.
Recognizing the critical need to accelerate restoration efforts across northern Arizona’s ponderosa pine forests, a unique and extensive partnership has been established.
In 2009, more than 30 organizations, municipalities, institutions, and agencies united to collaboratively plan and carry out landscape-scale forest restoration efforts across 2.4 million acres of Arizona’s Mogollon Rim.
The Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI), which would cover portions of the Apache-Sitgreaves, Coconino, Kaibab and Tonto national forests, aims to implement comprehensive restoration over the next 20 years, including thinning mostly small trees across 1 million acres and safe controlled burning and natural fire management on much of the landscape.
The unprecedented alignment of several factors provides a window of opportunity for 4FRI to be successful in protecting northern Arizona’s communities, restoring its forests, and providing jobs.
First, 4FRI brings diverse stakeholders to the table, including historic adversaries. Stakeholders have reached unprecedented levels of agreement regarding key strategies for landscape-scale restoration. Now, with the strong bi-partisan support of local, county, state and federal elected officials, these stakeholders are translating their agreement into action.
Second, 4FRI is working at the right scale — planning its first project across nearly 750,000 acres. This is 50 times larger than typical restoration projects, and allows treatments to be strategically placed such that they simultaneously drop large fires to the ground, and address critical ecosystem needs, such as biodiversity conservation, wildlife corridor protection, and watershed enhancement.
Third, 4FRI has strong science underlying its efforts. Developed by key partners such as Northern Arizona University’s Forest Ecosystem Restoration Analysis project and Ecological Restoration Institute and others, quality science is guiding ongoing planning and will allow 4FRI to track and refine the direction of its efforts.
Fourth, 4FRI is engaging appropriately scaled industry that can use restoration byproducts to manufacture wood products, thereby creating much-needed jobs and substantially reducing treatment costs.
Finally, 4FRI benefits from the four committed and visionary national forest supervisors who are marshalling this effort. Such leadership is and will continue to be critical to 4FRI’s ultimate success.
Flagstaff’s recent fires forcefully reminded residents of the urgent need to move forward intelligently, ambitiously, and with a healthy dose of humility, toward landscape-scale ecological restoration across the region. In this spirit we aim to complete planning our first 750,000-acre project in 18 months, with on-the-ground implementation beginning shortly thereafter.
As a community, we should hold ourselves accountable to know that we have done all we can to reduce the chances of a repeat of the Eagle Rock, Hardy and Schultz fires. We now have the collective will, support, and tools to pursue proactive restoration that can greatly reduce the negative impacts of such fires.
To do anything less would be irresponsible. We hope that the citizens of northern Arizona will actively support and participate in 4FRI as it works to ambitiously implement landscape-scale forest restoration in the years to come.