Luna Lake, White Mountains, Arizona

November 24, 2015

AZ Big Media

Experts say healthy forests improve quality of life

Dense forests that blanket millions of acres in northern Arizona are a lightning strike away from a potentially catastrophic wildfire that could threaten our quality of life statewide.

Healthy forests impact air quality and maintain our water supply through watersheds that feed the Verde and Salt rivers. They also contribute to our state’s economy through tax revenue and billions of tourism dollars.

Ongoing fire suppression that encouraged an abundance of fuel growth combined with continuing drought conditions have created a dangerous tinderbox that, if left unchecked, has the potential to compromise our major water sources and air quality, damage homes and business, cause flooding and soil erosion, endanger wildlife, and forever change the landscape that once enticed tourists who contribute to a robust state economy.

Arizona Forward, a business-based environmental public interest organization, formed a committee of more than 25 people, including those from the Nature Conservancy in Arizona, the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University and the Sustainable Economic Development Initiative, to study the issue.

In an effort to increase awareness and educate the community about the importance of forest health, the organization released a primer that details the critical state of our overgrown forests, the potential problems that impact the entire state and possible solutions.

Changing landscape

Eric Marcus, executive director of the Sustainable Economic Development Initiative, explains, “Historically, Arizona forests had roughly 50 trees per acre and that same acreage today is supporting up to 1,000 trees. Much of that growth is small diameter trees that are competing for nutrients and water. They are less healthy and highly susceptible to fire and insect infestation. That is an enormous fuel load. The fires burn hotter, longer, and the acreage is much more significant.”

What once would have been a fast moving, low-intensity ground fire, that singed trees and left scorched grasses to add nutrients to the soil, now utilizes the dense vegetation to build mega fires that obliterate old growth trees and leave soil exposed and vulnerable to flooding.

“If we don’t get our forests more healthy, we will lose those beautiful old trees and put our water in jeopardy. We can’t afford to do nothing,” Marcus says, explaining that the problem stretches throughout the West.

“Look at California’s recent fires, the property damage, lives taken. If it were not for the rains we had in June and July, that same loss of life and property that California is experiencing could have happened here in Arizona,” Marcus says.

Diane Brossart, president and CEO of Arizona Forward, suspects most Arizonans are unaware of the overall impact wildfires have on residents throughout the Grand Canyon State.

“It destroys our landscape, tarnishes our water supply and hits all of us in the pocketbook,” Brossart says. “Tourism suffers and our quality of life is diminished. It doesn’t matter where in the state you live, you’re impacted.”

Vital water supply

Arizona’s forests are critical to the water supply that supports millions of Arizonans, billions of dollars of agricultural production and our economic future, Brossart says.

Marcus agrees, “I don’t think that most of us in the state understand how critically important those forests really are. For example, they provide a majority of drinking water to residents. There’s a 13,000 square-mile watershed around the Salt and Verde rivers that feeds six reservoirs and provides water to almost 2 million residents in the Valley.”

In a healthy forest, with a mix of amply spaced trees, grasses and wild flowers, the trees absorb greenhouse gases and melting snow fills the reservoirs.

If a major fire ignited in Arizona’s overgrown forests, beyond the loss of thousands of acres of trees, and tons of particulate matter spewed into the air, the land would be void of any ground cover designed to keep soil intact. Rains would sweep through the burned acreage, causing post-fire floods. Sludge would carry ash, sediment and debris downstream, destroying natural habitat, contaminating water and lessening the storage capacity of the reservoirs.

Economic impact

Replenishing the destroyed land, dredging the sludge from the reservoirs and purifying the water is time consuming and costly.

“You also have the costs of wildfires in terms of homes, businesses, lives. It’s the cost of suppression, it’s property losses, it’s damage to recreational resources, evacuation of residents, health related impact. It’s enormous and then there’s costs felt long after: loss of tax revenue, decreased property value, lost business revenue,” Marcus explains.

Northern Arizona draws tourists from around the world, contributing $2.5 billion to the state’s tourism industry. When the Slide Fire damaged 20,000 acres near a popular Sedona tourist attraction last year, visitors’ numbers dropped from more than 44,000 in June 2013 to about 2,700 in June 2014 and revenue plummeted from $8,000 a day to $200 a day. The Sedona Chamber of Commerce estimated the overall financial loss of that fire to exceed $100 million.

With three million acres in Northern Arizona at high risk for wildfire, the uncertainty also impacts businesses considering relocation.

“How do we attract businesses to Arizona when they are concerned if we are going to have a water supply or if they are concerned about if we are going to have catastrophic wildfires?” Marcus asks. “We need to fix this now and we can. We have the resources. We have the technology. We simply have to exercise the will. The sooner we get started the safer we can make the state.”

Forest products industry returns

Work has already begun with the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, designed to restore and maintain more than 300,000 acres in the Coconino, Apache-Sitgreaves, Kaibab and Tonto forests by using a variety of methods that include thinning and prescribed burning.

“If we want to protect our old growth forests, we have to remove the fuel that is sitting around them,” Marcus says.

He says the forest product industry needs to return to Northern Arizona and reports that timber mills are emerging in Williams.

Advanced technology, like GPS satellite to locate specific small-diameter trees, is streamlining the removal process.

“We can use private, commercial business to help us do that thinning to help mitigate the cost of forest thinning,” Marcus says, adding that businesses can take the problem of too many small trees and turn it into an opportunity. “Technology is coming around now to be able to make use of that material. Arizona could be a leader in the biomass industry. We have the resources to do it.”

More to be done

Brossart asks Arizonans to get involved. “Arizonans need to express their support for forest thinning and prescribed burning, reestablishing a forest products industry, adaptive management of treated forest lands and limiting fire borrowing so these projects can be fully funded.”

Fire borrowing is the process of shifting money designated for forest maintenance and restoration and using it for fire suppression. Without the availability of disaster relief funds and with the cost of suppression so much higher than maintenance and restoration, the operational budget is rapidly depleted, leaving little funding for restorative efforts. Forest fire fuel continues to grow, larger fires ensue, and the cycle continues.

“These catastrophic fires are getting worse every year,” Marcus says, “and we have the ability to prevent billions of dollars in damage by spending a few million dollars today.”

He explains that there are bills currently in the legislature to address this problem but no resolution has materialized.

“Don’t minimize calling your representatives,” he says, “That’s how things get changed.”

He says residents should also talk with city officials and state legislators.

“I would like to see the state of Arizona take a leadership role in moving forward for a solution that gets us healthy forests.”

“Only when we get the majority of the people who live in the state to appreciate the importance of this problem will we be able to move in the direction we need to so we don’t have these catastrophic fires,” Marcus says.