A bill designed to provide money to thin the forest around fire-menaced communities last week survived a state House vote — but only after lawmakers stripped away most of the money proposed.
HB 2343 originally would have used $25 million in state money to pay for thinning projects on state-owned land. Rim Country’s entire delegation sponsored the bill, including Rep. Brenda Barton (R-Payson), Rep. Bob Thorpe (R-Flagstaff) and Sen. Chester Crandell (R-Heber).
The bill passed the House last week, but must still make it through the Senate.
Rep. Barton said that the bill had run into “a buzz saw” of opposition, due mostly to the effort to set aside $25 million for projects.
Concerns about the state budget prompted the sponsors to cut back on the money proposed. The amended bill will provide $200,000 to add a person to the State Forester’s Office and set up a grant-giving program. The bill would also set aside $1.8 million to fund projects on the 9.2 million acres of state-owned land.
That’s enough money to thin between 9,000 and 18,000 acres. By contrast, the Yarnell Fire alone burned 8,500 acres. The Wallow Fire burned about 650,000 acres.
State lawmakers have bitterly criticized the federal government for not thinning and harvesting the far more extensive federal lands in Arizona. However, the Tonto National Forest has spent more than $14 million clearing buffer zones around Rim Country communities in recent years. The Forest Service just awarded a $900,000 grant to the Christopher Creek Fire Department to do additional thinning there.
HB 2343 came in the wake of the Yarnell Fire, which killed 19 wildlands firefighters and destroyed a big chunk of Yarnell. The fire started on state-owned lands and burned through thick brush that hadn’t been burned or cleared in half a century. Several independent investigations faulted the state for mismanaging the fire, leading to the deaths of the 19 Prescott firefighters.
HB 2343 was supposed to have provided money to help endangered rural communities like Yarnell, Pine, Payson and others thin a buffer zone in surrounding forests. The money would go for projects on state lands. However, most of the public land in Rim Country is owned by the federal government — and so wouldn’t be affected by HB 2343.
Still, the loss of money to thin state lands was a setback, especially so soon after the Yarnell Fire made headlines and focused attention on the overgrown, unhealthy, fire-prone condition of state lands.
The amended HB 2343 allows the State Lands Department to establish programs to remove trees and brush to reduce fire danger and improve forest health — with any proceeds from selling the trees to go to the state lands fund, which supports the school system.
The bill specifies that the state forestry department can’t spend more than 10 percent of the $1.8 million on administration and overhead.
Rim Country communities have struggled to clear dangerous thickets of brush and trees. The handful of existing state and federal programs have tightened or disappeared, leaving many areas to rely on volunteer efforts.
The Tonto National Forest has proven adept at getting year-end grants from the Forest Service to clear a network of buffer zones around most Rim Country communities. But once cleared, the buffer zones need either controlled burns or a fresh trim every five to 10 years.
But Rim Country communities have even had trouble keeping open the brush pits, where homeowners can haul truckloads of brush they have cleared from their properties. The brush pits have been closed for several weeks, although several agencies are making efforts to get together enough money to reopen them.