The state should take over the national forests and dramatically accelerate logging to thin forests and prevent catastrophic wildfires, said state Sen. Sylvia Allen and a group of people affected by the massive Wallow Fire during a recent press conference and hearing at the state capitol.
The group posed in front of a flatbed truck with a huge tree charred in the summer fire that consumed 730 square miles in the White Mountains. She called for the state to take over the forests if the Forest Service doesn’t act immediately to undertake thinning on a massive scale.
“All of our people up on our mountain are from all political persuasions, and I would say confidently that 95 percent of them are behind what we are trying to do. They want to save our forests,” said Allen, a Snowflake Republican and Senate President Pro Tem whose district includes all of Rim Country.
“If the Forest Service will not act now,” said Allen, “then the state of Arizona needs to step up on this emergency and take over management of our forest lands.”
“If they don’t get to those places where the trees have been killed, they are going to start falling over and it’s going to become a fire hazard again,” said Whitney Wiltbank, whose family has owned the Sprucedale Guest Ranch for 70 years. He spoke at a Nov. 17 press conference that preceded a Senate Natural Resources Committee hearing on forest management issues.
Ironically enough, the Apache-Sitgreaves Forest has moved with “unprecedented” speed to award salvage contracts to timber companies to harvest charred trees while the lumber remains useable, said Pamela Baltimore, the lead public information officer for the 2-million-acre forest that stretches from where Highway 260 tops the Rim all the way to New Mexico.
The Apache-Sitgreaves has already awarded 16 salvage contracts, which will harvest enough wood to build 700 homes, said Baltimore. The forest will likely award another 30 salvage contracts in January and February, she said.
The Apache-Sitgreaves has also spent some $29 million on projects to remove dangerously weakened trees along roads and to spread mulch and seeds by helicopter to prevent mudslides and devastating erosion, said Baltimore.
Moreover, the Apache-Sitgreaves has taken the lead nationally in using timber sales to thin dangerously overgrown forests. The White Mountain Stewardship Project in the past decade has thinned roughly 50,000 acres, including buffer zones that saved both Alpine and Greer from the racing flames of the Wallow Fire.
The Apache-Sitgreaves is one of four forests, including the Tonto, ramping up to award contracts as part of the 4-Forests Restoration Initiative. That large-scale thinning project emerged from a consensus between local officials, foresters, environmentalists and timber companies about the need to use the timber industry to thin millions of acres of forest.
The Forest Service has requested proposals from timber companies for the first, 750,000-acre phase of what promises to be a 20-year process.
Baltimore said forest managers have moved far more quickly this year than they did after the Rodeo-Chediski Fire. In that case, legal logjams pitting conservation groups against timber companies and the Forest Service stalled the large-scale awarding of contracts until the burned timber had decayed so it was no longer useable.
“Compared to the Rodeo-Chediski Fire we’ve already gotten a lot of areas open. If you compare the number of roads closed then and now it’s been unreal,” said Baltimore. “All the thinning that’s been done in Greer and the Alpine area made a big difference as evidenced by the damage. In the Rodeo-Chediski Fire we lost 424 homes, compared to just 32 structures in the Wallow Fire. We have been making strides in thinning, yes — but there’s a lot more forest to thin.”
Still, the White Mountains residents that formed the group Courage to Stand for Arizona’s Forests gathered before the eerie, blackened tree and insisted that the Forest Service isn’t moving fast enough.
“Doyle Shamley, from Apache County Natural Resources, said “our tree density in some areas is running anywhere from 12,200 trees per acre to 2,200 trees per acre. And it is supposed to be, according to the Department of the Interior, 70 trees per acre.”
Researchers from Northern Arizona University have concluded that the dramatic increase in tree densities stemmed from a century of fire suppression and unrestrained cattle grazing that removed the grass that once carried frequent, low intensity ground fires. Clearcutting by loggers that allowed thickets of saplings to grow and lawsuits by conservation groups that in recent decades dramatically reduced timber harvests also played a role, the researchers concluded.
But Shamley and others at the news conference put most of the blame on the Forest Service and the decline of logging.
“We can drive up there, physically drive up there,” said Shamley, “but if you dare touch it, then they start threatening you with resource damage and a myriad of federal crimes.”
Sen. Allen concluded that the failure to log the forest heavily in recent decades led to the Wallow Fire, the largest in state history. The consequences of that fire will persist for decades. That includes the release of carbon dioxide by decaying downed logs, mudslides and damaging flooding made worse by soils often glazed and sterilized by the heat of the flames. Already, silt and runoff have smothered some White Mountain streams, which gets more rainfall than any other region of the state. The fire also had a devastating economic impact on a region almost entirely dependent on tourism economically.
“Further catastrophic fires are still in Arizona’s future. Arizona’s forest is in a state of emergency and will be for decades if the federal government does not act now. The over-growth of trees that clog the forests must be dealt with now and the federal policies roadblocks must be removed now.”