In a recent editorial, “Thin the forests or lose them,” The Arizona Republic described the reality that faces Arizona.
Forest fuel loads will be thinned through active forest management or removed through catastrophic fire. We have lost approximately 40 percent of Arizona’s ponderosa pine forests since 2000 because of catastrophic wildfires and there is no reason to expect this unimaginable rate of loss to change.
It is clear what must be done to save our forests, but what was noticeably missing from the editorial is how we pay for the needed work.
To answer that critical question, it is necessary to understand the fiscal foundations of America’s conservation systems. Forest thinning can cost as much as $1,000 per acre. With 4 million acres of forests, the price tag in Arizona alone could be measured in trillions of dollars. Can the taxpayer afford that?
America loves her natural resources, but the national will to support this level of conservation through taxation and funding from the federal treasury has never been up to this level of challenges. Fortunately, conservation pioneers such as Theodore Roosevelt, Gifford Pinchot and Aldo Leopold envisioned conservation systems in which the beneficiaries of the use of our natural resources help pay for the conservation of those resources.
Hunters and anglers primarily fund state wildlife-conservation agencies, annually putting nearly $4.5 billion of wildlife conservation efforts on the ground. Public-lands grazers help conserve rangeland resources through the assessment of grazing fees. And, prior to the 1990s, public-lands timber industries contributed to forest conservation through timber sales and sound silvicultural practices.
These timber industries collapsed in the 1990s under the effects of over-harvest and environmental litigation. With the collapse of the Southwestern timber industry, the ability to provide for widespread forest health management was lost.
Just as the loss of the hunter and fisherman would lead to a collapse of our wildlife-conservation system, the loss of the timber industry in Arizona led to the collapse of forest conservation. Is it a coincidence that all of Arizona’s mega-fires have occurred since the 1990s?
The Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) is the first landscape-scale effort to revive an industry that is essential to forest-health management, and in spite of the daunting challenge of trying to create an industry, it shows promise.
How much better off would our forests be, if in our zeal to save the forests, we would have first sought to save and preserve our system of forest-conservation funding?
The ecological clock is ticking. It’s time to respond.
Larry Voyles directs the Arizona Game and Fish Department.