Alas, the political debate about how to save the forest and the people in it reflects all the anger, blame placing and bafflement of our times.

The recent forest health conference in Payson underscored that sad truth.

The conference called together lawmakers, local officials, loggers, state officials, Forest Service officials and a host of experts.

While they agreed on the urgency of the problem, often it seems like they talked past one another when it came down to the nuts and bolts of finding a solution.

The conference even played out the deep differences revealed by the presence on the panel of two of the candidates for the District 6 senate and house seats representing the most endangered areas in Arizona — stretching from Flagstaff to Alpine.

Longtime Sen. Sylvia Allen laid the blame for the unhealthy state of the forest and the mounting danger from megafires like the one that consumed Paradise, Calif. last year at the feet of the environmental movement.

“I absolutely love our forests. I grew up here in Arizona and I’ve seen our forest change from when I was running around in it as a little kid.”

She recalled a 1995 injunction when a federal judge essentially shut down the forest industry, saying the Forest Service had failed to comply with a host of environmental laws in awarding timber harvest bids. Allen said people from the timber industry and rural areas besieged lawmakers and the offices of Gov. Fife Symington.

“I witnessed the human suffering,” she said. “The forest is growing 700 million board feet a year and in 1990 we were cutting 350 million board feet. So you’re seeing these fire incidents because we’re not in the forest any more cutting those trees. We’ve been talking about this for 25 years. There’s a logjam and we can’t get past it.”

Also on the panel was Art Babbott, a Coconino County supervisor running as an independent for the District 6 house seat vacated by Rep. Bob Thorpe on account of term limits. Babbott has been a leader in the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) stakeholders group, seeking to deploy a revitalized timber industry to thin a million acres of forest. So far, that effort has floundered — thinning about 13,000 acres in nearly a decade, largely for lack of a market for millions of tons of biomass.

As the conference unfolded, a lightning-caused fire continued to burn on the steep slopes overlooking Flagstaff. A previous study had suggested heavy rains on that slope right after a high-intensity wildfire seared the soil could cause a billion dollars in damage.

He maintained that it will take a much broader effort to restore and then maintain healthy forest conditions by reducing tree densities by 80 or more per acre.

“We have an opportunity to move forward from one of the most exciting, exhilarating, frustrating challenges facing rural Arizona. It is important that we as communities understand that we are going to pay. Do we want to pay based on investment and proactive activity — or do we want to pay in cleanup and flood mitigation. All the costs that come with a landscape can’t be covered by the natural fiber that’s in it. We need to allow fire to play the role it is supposed to play,” said Babbott.

He said that after the Schultz Fire political leaders in Flagstaff finally fully grasped the connection between forest thinning and the health of the watershed that sustains the community. One study demonstrated that a high-intensity crown fire on the Bill Williams Mountain watershed could open the door to $650 million in damages from flooding and loss of water.

“We cannot separate forest health from watersheds. We have to be very clear — without successful, vibrant, productive industry — forest restoration efforts will fail. If we want industry to pay the way for restoration, we need to be very cognizant that carving out profit from a low-value timber landscape is very hard. It’s going to happen when the Forest Service in partnership with local government says the rules and regulations in this landscape are very different from those in the Northwest.”

As an example, he cited the so-far failing effort to convince the Arizona Corporation Commission to require utilities it regulates to generate 60 megawatts of electricity annually from biomass, with another 30 megawatts hopefully coming from non-regulated utilities like the Salt River Project.

“That is one of the most disheartening pieces of this problem I’ve seen — that inability to take the privileges granted to a monopoly utility and then talk about who takes the risk,” said Babbott.

However, at this point Allen disagreed.

“I don’t think the corporation commission should be designing the business model of a business. I believe that if APS thinks biomass is a good idea, they should be able to go ahead and do that. I think it’s not a matter of money to subsidize that. It can be wrapped into the whole energy package of the company and spread out to all of its ratepayers. If that is the model, they can wrap into all of their energy.”

Except without the ACC policy, the utilities can’t include the investment in biomass plants in their rate base — which means they couldn’t pass the charge along the customers and would have to pay for the excess costs out of stockholder profits.

State Forester David Tenney intervened. Tenney has been a Navajo County supervisor and the state consumer advocate on utility issues and now serves as state forester. “The ratepayer is the taxpayer. I pay my taxes. I pay my electric bill. I’m an Arizona citizen. We can pay now or we can pay later. But it costs 10 times as much per acre to put out a fire as it takes to treat it ahead of time — so why in the world would we say it’s better to do it later? It’s not an APS issue, it’s an Arizona issue. If APS buys 60 megawatts of power, it’s less than one-half of 1 percent of their energy portfolio. It’s not going to cause the energy bills to skyrocket. So I’m going to keep banging away at the corporation commission until they ban me from their meetings.”

Babbott said the key lies in making sure Valley residents, whose representatives control the Legislature understand what’s at stake in the forest restoration efforts.

“We have to get Maricopa County water uses to understand the watershed. From a county perspective, we are still prevented from passing an ordinance on how the counties set the rules as to sufficient water supply. There’s a major disconnect on water supply between rural Arizona and urban Arizona.”

But Allen said the key to managing the watershed lies in getting rid of the trees soaking up the water. “If a mature ponderosa pine takes 200 gallons a day, how as a state are we going to manage that? And I’ll tell you another thing that’s missing — 50 percent of the cattle have been removed, which was another tool that was used to keep the grasslands down and keep the brush down.”

However, forest researchers like Northern Arizona University researcher Wally Covington say cattle probably played more of a role in eliminating natural, low-intensity wildfires than either logging or Forest Service policies. Eliminating grass prevented the regular, low-intensity fires from moving through the forest every five to seven years. This allowed thickets of pine saplings and other trees to move into the clearings created when loggers removed most of the big trees.

Babbott noted, “One of the most important things we can do is to provide support for local district rangers to base management around ignitions” of controlled burns. “The Forest Service needs community support to do that. It’s not a question of whether we are going to have fire on our landscape — it’s do we have it where we have long-term benefits or is it suppress, suppress, suppress — and then it’s disaster.”

Allen also suggested the solution may lie in waiving any environmental laws that slow down thinning and timber projects — and perhaps letting the state manage federal lands.

However, some participants pointed out that the Forest Service has already cleared more than 100,000 acres for thinning projects, but found no timber companies willing to bid on the sale — largely due to the biomass problem and the relatively low value of the thickets of remaining small trees.

State law has a lot more restrictions on management of state lands — for instance requiring that any use of state lands turn a profit to go into the state lands trust. By contrast, the federal government is legally required to manage its lands for multiple uses. Besides, the state already owns nearly 10 million acres and does far less thinning on its land than the Forest Service does now.

In the end, everyone agreed on the goal – even if they sometimes clashed on the methods – and how we got here into such a fix.

“Maybe if we get the federal government to work for us, we can get past the logjam of the numerous regulations — and keep our forest healthy,” said Sen. Allen, “and. restore the experience I had as a child. Bring back all these little streams that don’t run anymore. There are places in Alpine that are so thick you can’t walk through there. We want a healthy forest. We want to restore our water. We can have jobs, we can have product. The real issue is saving our beautiful forests and stopping these fires we’re spending billions of dollars fighting. Why don’t we spend those billions of dollars getting those timber sales out there so they can go out and build the plants and everybody wins?” said Allen.

Babbott concluded, “you have to make an investment. Clearly there’s been this notion that anything that impacts electric ratepayers kills the deal with biomass. We are going to keep banging on the piano and playing trombones – there comes a point at which you have to say, this is a legislative deal. It’s going to take that continuing pressure.”

“I feel your frustration, I really do,” said Sen. Allen. “We’ve been talking about what needs to be done for 25 years and we’re still nowhere. I thought 4FRI was going to be the answer and look what’s happened for the last seven years with that. You think the governor can make it happen – I’ll call him. Or are we just waiting for Paradise to happen here? People died. The whole town burned up. Is that what’s going to happen in Arizona that we’ll finally get something done? I’m scrambling. I don’t have an answer other than to say I’m willing to speak up, carry a bill.”

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(1) comment

Jon Cline

We pray for rain to mitigate fire danger, and when we get it the end product is hundreds of thousands of tons new growth of brush and trees - effectively fuel for the next fire - and the cycle repeats. No logging or grazing to reduce the fuel load. What could possibly go wrong? Good article Pete!

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