Northern Arizona University researchers on Thursday will host a public forum on how Payson residents feel about the health and psychological effects of smoke from thinning projects drifting into the community.
The Dec. 6 forum will last from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. in the Payson Schools District Office Board Room at 902 W. Main St., said NAU professor Erik Neilson.
The goal of the forum is to probe public concerns and determine whether resistance to smoke from controlled burns will complicate the efforts to thin millions of acres of dangerously overcrowded forests as part of the Four Forest Restoration Initiative.
“The impact of smoke is one of the big social issues that hasn’t really been dealt with, so we wanted to engage people on what some of the tradeoffs are,” said Neilson.
The 4-FRI effort hopes to give timber companies long-term contracts to harvest millions of small trees, for use in specialized lumber products and for bio-fuel power plants. The logging crews will likely take trees up to a certain size but leave behind piles of brush and unusable trees to later burn. In addition, the Forest Service hopes to make greater use of controlled burns to keep areas cleared after the initial thinning.
The goal is to return forests to a more natural condition, in which frequent, low-intensity fires can keep the forest cleared. Current conditions with tree densities 10 or 20 times the natural range pose a grave danger of uncontrolled crown fires that can consume cities and sterilize the soil.
The shift will likely mean towns like Payson will much more often have smoke from controlled burns and slash piles drifting into town. That can affect people with breathing problems and also often triggers complaints from residents.
“We’re trying to look at the health concerns and separate that from the ‘oh, well, smoke isn’t very nice and we don’t really like it’ attitude,” said Neilson. “We like a more nuanced understanding of how the public sees the smoke and accepts the smoke.”