McKinnon: Cooperation Crucial in Forest Restoration
When a wildfire as big as the Wallow Fire blows up, there's always the temptation to point fingers and cast blame. But this fire is burning on a northeastern Arizona landscape where cooperation has for years been the driving force in trying to protect communities and restore degraded ponderosa-pine forests.
And, with the Wallow Fire's plume looming on the horizon, it's critical for everybody - including politicians and the media - to continue working together toward constructive solutions.
In the wake of Arizona's last drought-driven megafire, 2002's Rodeo-Chediski Fire, the Forest Service initiated the White Mountain Stewardship Contract to facilitate forest restoration in the White Mountains east of that fire's boundary, in a swath of forest that includes the area being affected by the Wallow Fire.
Everyone - communities, conservationists, small businesses - hailed the awarding of that contract to local businesses in 2004.
It aimed to restore up to 150,000 acres of degraded forest over 10 years by strategically thinning small trees in overgrown ponderosa forests to safely reintroduce beneficial fires.
Along with communities, businesses and agencies, conservation groups have continued to work to see that effort to success. That work has included helping design and monitor forest-restoration projects and lobbying in Washington, D.C., to ensure the effort's ongoing funding.
As of April 2010, 49,719 acres of degraded forest had been approved for treatment. Work had been completed on 35,166 of those acres, and the rest were in progress. Most of those acres are located in the wildland-urban interface and are intended to reduce fire hazards to communities - including Alpine, Nutrioso, Eagar and Greer - now threatened by the Wallow Fire. None of that work was being impeded by conservation groups. We'll know when the smoke clears whether those treatments made a difference; we suspect they did.
Even in the weeks preceding the fire, conservation groups were helping the Forest Service design a project to restore ponderosa-pine forest in the area that's now been burned by the Wallow Fire. The Beaver Creek project would have intercepted a fire just like the Wallow Fire, facilitating a more-natural surface fire.
The White Mountain Stewardship Contract has been hailed as a model for collaborative forest restoration.
Building on that success, conservationists, scientists, communities and businesses are now working with the Forest Service on the Four Forest Restoration Initiative. It's an effort to restore the world's largest contiguous ponderosa-pine-forest ecosystem, stretching from Flagstaff to New Mexico.
It's the most ambitious ecological-restoration effort in the history of the national-forest system.
In addition to setting long-degraded forests on a path toward recovery, the initiative will create jobs, improve watersheds, reduce fire threats to communities and create conditions in which beneficial natural fires resume their rightful role sustaining forests and their biodiversity over time.
This is, to be sure, a massive undertaking. Getting it off the ground has required tremendous cooperation; seeing it to fruition will require even more. Our ponderosa-pine forests deserve as much.
Taylor McKinnon is the public lands campaign director at the Center for Biological Diversity.
Copyright © 2011 The Arizona Republic.
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