Stark differences separate the District 6 legislative candidates when it comes to preventing wildfires from swallowing up forested communities.
Republicans Brenda Barton and Walt Blackman — both running for the House — stress turning over control of federal land to the state — so the state can “clean up” the forest. Senate candidate Wendy Rogers did not take part in either of the two candidate debates and has not taken a position on forest restoration in campaign mailings.
Democrats Felicia French — running for Senate — and Coral Evans — running for the House — maintain that the state should lobby the federal government to do a better job of managing its lands, boost prospects for the Four Forest Restoration Initiative and support local initiatives — like Flagstaff’s $10 million bond issue to thin buffer zones.
Independent Art Babbott takes the most activist position of all, saying state and local governments should put all their weight behind 4FRI as well as push to create markets for biomass, to foster large-scale thinning efforts. The Coconino County supervisor has for years taken a leading role in pushing for the 4FRI effort to thin some 2 million acres of overgrown forests in northern Arizona to reduce the threat of megafires.
The District 6 House and Senate candidates appeared in two separate debates, one on the radio and one on public television. Babbott participated in both debates — one with the two Democrats and one with the two Republicans.
District 6 stretches from Flagstaff to Alpine, including all of the White Mountains and Rim Country. National studies have shown that communities like Flagstaff, Payson, Show Low, Pine, Springerville, Sedona and others currently face a significant risk of catastrophic fire, more than Paradise, Calif. did before a wildfire there burned the community to the ground and killed 85 residents.
The race this year has drawn more than $4 million dollars on both sides, more than half of that in the form of dark money spending by special interest groups. The district could help determine party control of the Arizona Legislature. Republicans hold a two-seat majority in the House and a four-seat majority in the Senate.
Barton and Blackman both said the best solution lies in pushing to force the federal government to turn over its forested lands in Arizona to the state.
“I did support a bill for the Arizona Trust Land so they could clean their land for fire prevention, which had been forbidden under the law,” said Barton in apparent reference to an unsuccessful effort after the Yarnell Hill Fire to get about $25 million for thinning projects on state trust land, which makes up about 10% of the land in the state. The Yarnell Hill Fire, which killed 19 firefighters, burned mostly on state trust land.
The $25 million would have been enough to thin about 25,000 acres — a fraction of the land the state owns, but her fellow Republicans rejected the proposal.
Barton, who served in the Legislature for eight years before sitting out the past two due to term limits, continued, “I know 4FRI has been a big deal, but I don’t think it’s been as successful as we had hoped in terms of cleaning the amount of acreage that needs to be cleaned.”
The Forest Service hopes to find contractors who will thin tree densities on some 2 million acres from roughly 1,000 trees per acre to about 100 trees per acre, but the effort has been mostly stalled for a decade for the lack of a market for the saplings and tree slash, which make up about half of the material a restoration project would remove.
Blackman, a retired Army sergeant seeking his second term, said, “I’d like our forests to be managed at the local level. I sponsored a bill that would move some of that land management back into the hands of people who know best. It’s important that we manage the land by thinning the forests, using biomass, trying to bring jobs back into that area — also to effectively manage that forest with the debris that is found after we cut the trees down. We do need to put our management back into the hands of those experts. We have some right here who have done it,” he said.
The U.S. Forest Service spends $2 billion to $3 billion annually fighting wildfires nationally and hundreds of millions more on thinning and restoration projects.
Babbott said the Legislature has failed to give the issue enough priority. “Catastrophic fire and post-fire flooding is the No. 1 issue in rural Arizona. Without a vibrant, growing forest industry, none of this is going to work. We need to build in reasonable incentives (for industry). We need to push federal partners to reform some of their actions and regulations” as well as pushing the Arizona Corporation Commission to create a market for biomass by requiring power companies to use energy from burning wood slash.
Evans, mayor of Flagstaff, pointed to her record in pushing for strong action to confront the danger of wildfires. Flagstaff has adopted a model wildland-urban interface building code as well as a Firewise brush clearing code, which fire experts say can stop the embers from a nearby fire from setting the whole town on fire. Flagstaff also has a fire department crew that clears brush and creates buffer zones to prevent a wildfire from moving through town. Finally, Flagstaff voters approved a $10 million bond issue to help create a buffer zone in the thick forests that surround the city.
“We need to understand how to respond to the current changes in our climate and move forward in a way that’s successful,” said Evans, a former teacher whose father was a lumberjack. “The state of Arizona needs to understand that it’s not just fire, we have issues with water. It doesn’t snow like it used to snow. You don’t have to be a scientist to understand that things are different. Why is the state not managing its property correctly and how do we manage that resource to produce jobs? We have done it here in Flagstaff. We have to understand that our jobs depend on the beauty we have here.”
French, a retired Army colonel, nurse and helicopter pilot, said her 800-mile hike on the Arizona Trail convinced her of the need for much stronger action by the state and federal governments to protect the region’s forests and reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire.
“The Arizona Trail is 800 miles long and one-third of the trail goes through the heart of District 6 ... The power lines are very vulnerable and they cause fires. This is something that happened in Paradise, Calif.,” which was destroyed by a fire caused by a power line that blew down in high winds. That’s why Arizona needs to push for things like turning biomass into electricity to foster forest thinning efforts, she said. “There are so many things we can do better at as a state.”
Babbott said the state’s failure to cope with the rising threat of wildfires demonstrates the political deadlock of the two party system, dominated by the contributions of special interests.
“I do not govern from extremes. I govern from the middle. I always base my position on that: What is the risk of continuing to do what we’re doing? I would argue that all of these topics come under the umbrella of the dysfunctional electoral system. People are penalized for risk taking — for moving away from whatever your party’s position is. We have not had conversations across the aisle to solve these problems.”