Here’s the tragic truth: They don’t actually care.
Imagine that some idiot Valley camper starts a wildfire that comes roaring out of the mismanaged, overgrown forest and burns Payson to the ground.
The voters down in Phoenix who effectively control the state Legislature and the state’s Congressional delegation would devour the news. They would shake their heads and make pitying noises. They might adopt orphaned dogs.
But then they’d go on about their business.
Deep down, they don’t care that we have to play Russian Roulette with disaster this time every year. That’s why the state’s Congressional delegation has done diddly to compel the U.S. Forest Service to implement the Four Forest Restoration Initiative. That’s why the state Legislature hasn’t done jack to thin dangerous thickets on state trust land. That’s why the state and federal grants to help rural communities reduce fire danger by clearing brush dried up with the drought.
The only large-scale solution at hand remains 4FRI, which would give timber companies long-term contracts to thin at least 50,000 acres annually. But the project has fallen years behind schedule with only a few thousand acres thinned and no sign of the bio-energy and wood products mills and plants needed to each year process the millions of tons of trees and brush.
In the long run, our survival as a community depends on something like 4FRI actually working. That will only happen once the issue gets the political priority it deserves.
So we need to get sly and crafty if we’re to make saving the forests of Arizona an issue that concerns Valley residents — and therefore the state and congressional legislators with enough clout to make something happen.
So please take note of today’s front-page story about a crucial study done by researchers from the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University.
The researchers took advantage of the existence of 30 years of detailed stream flow data on the Beaver Creek Experimental Forest. Those decades of data carefully correlated with measurements of rain and snow offered a way to answer the most politically potent question when it comes to forest restoration and fire protection.
If the Forest Service thins the forest, how much water would the Valley get out of the deal?
Mind you, the massive reservoirs on the Colorado River have dwindled to half full. Poised to resume growth, the Valley now faces potentially severe water shortages. The continued rise in average temperatures due to the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere will bring a triple-digit day of reckoning all too soon. Some folks are already talking about building horrendously expensive desalinization plants and multi-billion-dollar pipelines from the coast to deal with the imminent water shortage.
So we must make the case that the most cost-effective way to bolster the Valley’s water supply would be thinning a couple million acres of forest — never mind it will produce jobs and keep half the state from turning into ash.
Fortunately, this study makes the case.
The NAU researchers thinned the trees on their experimental plot to mimic the dramatic density reductions that lie at the heart of the 4FRI approach.
They concluded that thinning projects can increase runoff into streams and reservoirs by as much as 12 percent. Such an increase has the potential to add 42,000 acre-feet of water annually to the Valley’s water supply — since the Tonto National Forest watershed delivers about 350,000 acre-feet annually.
By the way, thinning the forest will also prevent a massive increase in erosion following wildfires that will eventually fill all the reservoirs with mud. Just tell them that the ashes from our houses could end up in their drinking water.
Granted, the estimates come with some caveats. First, the effect declines as the brush grows back and vanishes after 10 years. Second, in the driest years even the thinned forest will suck up the extra water. So you can’t just thin two million acres and call it a day — you need to either go back every 10 years or restore fire to its natural, frequent, low-intensity pattern.
So that’s the argument we should hammer home at every opportunity.
We should note that only one of the candidates for governor who has wandered through Payson in the past two months seems to grasp this argument. Mesa Mayor Scott Smith has articulated the politics of water insightfully during two recent appearances in Payson.
So we hope you will use this argument whenever you get a chance to communicate with a congressman, a state lawmaker or any candidate for statewide office.
They don’t seem to care just because the whole place might burn down while they’re doing not much of anything. But they might care if they think it will affect your vote.