Across the intermountain west, National Forests are at risk from fire, insects and declining forest health. Overcrowded and unhealthy forests, the result of many years of fire suppression and recent decades of neglect in proactive forest management, contribute to volatile fire dangers.
In June of 2011, the Wallow Fire – the largest in recorded Arizona history – burned over 500,000 acres. The fire, reportedly started by careless campers, was fueled by tinder dry forests whose dead trees succumbed to the Mountain Pine Beetle infestation. Costs to control the fire have been estimated at nearly $80 million.
Low level fire has historically been an important part of the healthy forest eco-system. But the conflagrations, such as the Wallow Fire, burn at such a high intensity that the forest is consumed, natural resources and wildlife habitats are destroyed, and residents and communities are imperiled. While some fires are human caused, many large fires are ignited by summer thunderstorms.
When conditions are extreme – a combination of hot weather, dead trees and heavy fuel – a fire of this magnitude can literally explode, consuming thousands of acres in a very short time. Even in these intense conditions, conscious efforts to reduce hazardous fuels may assist firefighters. The settlement of Alpine, Arizona was saved from destruction, for instance, when fire crews gained a foothold in an area where trees had been spaced out and concentrations of flammable brush and wood had been removed.
Treatment to improve forest health and reduce fire hazard can cost $1,000 per acre or more. If efforts in the West are combined with commercial thinnings to recover valuable sawmill logs, however, stumpage payments and deposits paid to the government can offset one-half or more of these costs.
Tragically across much of Arizona, Colorado and Wyoming, the infrastructure of sawmills and logging contractors with the expertise to perform much of this forest work has been lost. Federal timber harvest programs have been at a standstill for the last two decades due to public policy that eliminates timber harvests and a flurry of environmental lawsuits.
Tens of millions of our forest acres are highly susceptible to catastrophic fires. In some areas such as the Bend-Fort Rock Ranger District of the Deschutes National Forest in Oregon, the US Forest Service has undertaken projects to that will actively thin overcrowded forests producing sawmill logs and reducing fuel hazards to protect forest resources from fire and insects. Fortunately, a few sawmills and logging contractors are still around to perform the work in the Bend–Fort Rock area.
Many private citizens recognize the urgency of the forest health crisis and have joined with local governments and the US Forest Service to support and promote efforts to reduce the hazards of wildfire in local neighborhoods, protecting water quality, and enhancing wildlife habitat. Collaborative efforts such as the Upper Deschutes River Coalition support projects using the skills of local logging and forestry contractors to improve forest conditions. These cooperative projects sustain the infrastructure needed to maintain forest health while supporting family wage jobs in the forest and mills as loggers deliver logs and biomass to local industry.
Forest management to improve poor forest health conditions is a vastly superior choice to ceding a million acres of forest to the flames each summer. There are activist groups that will continue to oppose any projects producing commercial timber products. These tactics are destructive in nature and only contribute to the continuing disagreeable noise over use of public forests. If our desire is to turn the corner where we actively promote forest recovery rather than stoke annual conflagrations, it’s essential the forest industry be an equal partner in these efforts. A local forest industry is a valuable resource, too, one that likely cannot be replaced once it is gone.
To learn more about the Upper Deschutes River Coalition go to: http://www.udrc.org/
For details about Alpine, AZ fuel treatments go to: http://www.fs.fed.us/fire/management/fuel_treatments.pdf
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