Forest Service fire managers are burning western forests on purpose to reintroduce fire to “fire-depleted ecosystems.” The theory is that we can burn our way to healthy forests, that with enough applied wildfire we will be able to allow fire to burn freely, with less severity, and create a mosaic forest where fires will either self-extinguish or be more easily controlled. Since 2009, lightning and human-caused fires are often designated as “managed” fires and fought differently from old school fires that were attacked and suppressed by 10 a.m. the following day. This purposeful burning of millions of acres of public and private grounds is little known and poorly understood. Private landowners whose lands are damaged or destroyed by this practice understand it and are fighting back.
Rancher John Fowler has both private and public grazing lands south of Roosevelt Lake and above the Salt River north of Phoenix. In the past three years, several large fires have burned every acre of his public pastures and much of his private land. Tonto National Forest Supervisor Neil Bosworth told Mr. Fowler and other ranchers in the Globe area the Forest Service intended to burn much of the public land in Gila County. In meetings on April 19, 2018 and in subsequent meetings each spring, Forest staff officers told area ranchers their aggressive burn plans would likely destroy fences and above-ground irrigation pipes, but the environmental benefits for natural resource management would be worth it. Ominously, the Forest Service told the ranchers there would be no money to replace destroyed infrastructure. There would also be no opportunity to protest Bosworth’s decision.
A dedicated rancher and land manager, Fowler is held to stringent rules and regulations that govern how many cattle he can graze, the times of year cattle can be on the ground, and how much grass his cows are allowed from the public pastures. Volunteer “cow cops” patrol his pastures about twice weekly, documenting what they assert are “violations” of permit conditions. He may not build fences in the “viewshed” along the shores of Roosevelt Lake. He is not allowed to damage or disturb core habitat for the willow flycatcher, a species that is thriving in the salt cedar (tamarisk) that is stealing so much Arizona water and out-competing native vegetation. Salt cedar is now protected by Forest officers even though it is an invasive species and is the subject of widespread eradication campaigns in New Mexico and other states. Tamarisk (salt cedar) is a major fire hazard.
Even so, Fowler, who lives on his ranch northwest of Globe, was surprised when Forest Service firefighters appeared on his property and his allotments in 2019 during the Woodbury Fire (and again in 2020 during the Griffin, Meddler, and Salt Fires) and attempted to light up his private and permitted property to “manage” the main fires. They could not get the fire started in the sparse vegetation in the low desert country. Falling back to the lake and main highways, they burned for miles, destroying highway guardrails, fences, and other infrastructure. Also lost were thousands of acres of core habitat for protected species and miles of delicate Sonoran Desert vegetation that rarely experiences wildfire, especially in hot killing waves of human-ignited fire. Nor did the fires burn in typical patchwork quilt patterns, burning hot in some places and not so much in others. Firefighters used aerial drip torches and napalm to light interior islands of unburned fuel in a total black line strategy that the desert likely never experienced before.
This aggressive burning on purpose is astonishingly harmful to desert resources. Firefighters burned tens of thousands of protected saguaro cacti, thousands of Arizona cypress trees, and hundreds of miles of fences (50 miles on Fowler’s place) and irrigation pipe. Untold numbers of sensitive animals and acres of important habitat succumbed to the fires. The all-important “viewshed” prized by recreationists on the Salt River was left a smoldering ruin.
ADOT replaced 35 miles of burned guardrails worth more than $4 million dollars. Firefighters lit the verge of the highways, forgetting to protect the rails. Ranchers are struggling today to build enough fences to allow them to continue to follow Forest Service rules for managing cows.
The Gila County Cattle Growers Association and President Frank DalMolin of Globe are leading an effort to stop what they view as a fundamentally illegal activity. Dozens of ranchers are challenging the agency to follow the law, reinstate public grazing permits, and disclose the effects of huge fires spreading across Arizona.
The Wallow, Rodeo-Chediski, Woodbury, Bush, and other fires were the largest in Arizona history because firefighters have become unfettered and unaccountable, officially sanctioned arsonists on an epic, and probably illegal, scale.
Frank Carroll is a veteran firefighter and retired Forest Service staff officer with almost 50 years of firefighting and wildland fire policy experience. Carroll has written on wildfire policy issues and served as an expert witness in wildfire cases across the West and Australia.