Focus on Sustainability: Forest Management

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The number and intensity of wildfires raging across Arizona has a lot to do with the United States’ forest management policies. We’ll examine some of those policies, and efforts to reform them, with Diane Vosick of NAU’s Ecological Restoration Institute, Dr. Mary Lata of the U.S. Forest Service, and fire history expert Stephen Pyne of ASU’s School of Life Sciences.

TED SIMONS: Coming up next on "Arizona Horizon," wildfires burned a million acres of Arizona wilderness last year. How can the state keep from losing millions more? and business leaders shared their vision for the valley's economic future at a recent symposium sponsored by a local business magazine. Those stories next on "Arizona Horizon."
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TED SIMONS: Good evening, welcome to "Arizona Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. Has America's history of fire suppression actually contributed to the highly destructive Mega fires we see now in Arizona on a regular basis? Many in forest management think so noting that our forest versus become dense and over grown. The perfect conditions for fires that travel through the tops of trees, consuming everything in sight. They say we have created a situation where fires burn out of control because we have let our forests get out of control. The health of Arizona's forest is tonight focus on sustainability. Joining me, Dr. Mary Lata, U.S. forest service fire ecologist, Diane Vosick, director of partnerships for the ecological restoration institute at northern Arizona university, and Dr. Stephen Pyne a fire history expert, author and professor in the school of life science at Arizona state university. Good to have you all here and thanks for joining us. Are we managing the forests the best we can?

Mary Lata: We are now. We have made mistakes in the past as have many other countries. We have learned what it is we need to do and we're doing it now. Starting it with the scale of the forest, forest restoration, which is a big enough scale to make a difference as we need to.

TED SIMONS: Are we doing as best we can right now?

DIANE VOSICK: I think we need to step up the pace and scale of what we're doing. So we're excited about the four forest restoration initiatives which just released this 300,000 acre contract for forest thinning. That's going to go a long way toward accelerating what we need to be doing.

TED SIMONS: Stephen, are we doing the best we can right now?

STEVE PYNE: Well, we're trying. I'll speak from the fire perspective, that the U.S. and probably Australia are the two countries that are really at the forefront of trying to find the right way to balance fire and land management.

TED SIMONS: As the fire expert now, we said, it looks to me like the fires are getting bigger and more destructive every year. What's going on out there?

STEVE PYNE: Well, there are lots of things going on. Part of it is we have had favorable weather. We have been in a long drought cycle in the southwest. With a few breaks, but basically that has prepared things to burn. We're in the landscape that's built to burn. This is an ideal formula for burning. We have a lot of fuels, partly as a result of fire exclusion in the past but also because of grazing, the way we logged, a lot of land use practices. We put a lot of houses that restricts our ability to maneuver on the landscape. And we have changed policy. We're not going to put firefighters head-to-head on big fires any more. We're willing to back off, we're willing to let fires do some of the work, so part of the increased acres are a result of how we decided to manage fires.

TED SIMONS: Is that the reason we have seen so many Mega fires of late?

Diane Vosick: I think Steve has covered that extremely well. I think we have kind of created "The Perfect Storm" in the variety of practices that we had going on over the last 150 years. We started out by this fire used to be on the ground in these systems and it was like a predator. It would take out all the extra trees. We took away the fuel that allowed fire to be on the ground, the grasses when we overgrazed. Then we started putting out fires, even the good fires. So that allowed a whole lot of trees to grow over the last century that would never have been here had we not allowed good fire that would stay on the grounds to continue to do its work.

Ted Simons: What about other aspects? What about federal bans on logging, what about loggers at fault only because they only want the larger trees? What about development? Everyone wants to find someplace deep in the woods and you have sparks and -- more obvious ways of starting these damaging fires.

Mary Lata: Ignitions are certainly part of the whole equation. As Diane and Steve mentioned, we have managed the forests over the last 100 years in such a way that we have too much fuel. It's the Small trees, it's what we call ladder fuels, when the trees grow up a little bit then flames get into the lower branches in smaller trees and they get up into the crowns. With Ponderosa pines that is going to kill the trees. There's also surface fuels which historically would have been grasses where fires would go quickly and move through. Historical forests would have had no branches low down and there's no way for fires to get up into the crown so they are very healthy. In these very dense forests we have now we often have ladder fuels. That's how it get up and we get active ground fires which can kill hundreds of thousands of acres of trees. Even on the surface where we have buildup of needle litter and dead branches and so on, they can cause flame lengths which will scorch the needles so even if you don't get crown fire, it can lethally scorch the needles of trees and that often kills the old trees especially and or it burns in one place long enough that you get enough heat into the soil that it can damage the roots and burn up all the organic material in the surface of the soil, which is really important, and kill everything in that surface layer.

Steve Pyne: Just a quick point to reinforce this, that it's not any one factor. Sometimes it gets simplified, well, fire suppression is the cause. If you define it that way the solution is to eliminate fire suppression. No, it was a whole bunch of things we did that affected how the land organized itself and how fire operates on that land. We need to realize there are a lot of things to fix it.

TED SIMONS: When did we figure that out?

STEVE PYNE: We figured it out a long time ago, surprisingly. We're actually in the 50th anniversary of what we might call a fire revolution, change in policy began in '62, '63, '64, series of reforms and programs to begin shifting policy. So in some ways, half of our history of federal fire has been we spent half of the time trying to take fire out and half the time trying to find some way to put it back in. It turns out it's very easy to take it out and very, very hard to put it in. It's like reintroducing a lost species. If the habitat isn't right it's not going to work.

TED SIMONS: Diane, you have photographs of the history of a particular forest, actually of a particular tree in a forest, what it looked like in 1909 and how that forest has built up over the years. With the arrow, this is our tree, correct?
DIANE VOSICK: That's right. This is the time series sequence. This is a photograph as it shows in 1909. What you see here is what was commonly described as an open park-like environment in our forest. If you go to the next slide, what you see is that in 1942, we were beginning to see what was going to later lead to these large catastrophic fires that we're seeing now. In 1919 we had an exceptional pine cone crop that allowed a lot of these trees to get established, but at that time -- we had lots of small trees that began in 1919, but we had taken that good fire from the ground out of the system. So that allowed all these small trees to take off. Then when you get to the last series in 1992, what you see are these ladder kills that Mary was speaking about which basically when fire comes into the system, whether it hits the grounds or one of these intermediate trees, it allows for the fire to just swoop up into the canopy and create the kinds of fires that we're seeing today.

Ted Simons: I would like to go through those slides one more time from 1909 on. That's -- that looks like what I think a lot of us when we first came to Arizona would see parts of the forest and if you came from any place in the country you thought, that's a weird forest. There's nothing on the grounds. But that's the way it's supposed to look.

DIANE VOSICK: Right. If you think of a fire, look at this picture of 1909 and think what a fire would do. There's not a lot of fuel on the ground so your flame lengths won't be high, it can't get into the crowns.

TED SIMONS: by 1942, when you see that photograph of the same forest, obviously, that's a lot of stuff there. Were people raising warning flags even then saying, this may not a good thing?

STEVE PYNE: Actually not because they had argued early on that the purpose of fire protection was to create a future forest. They thought if they could take fire out of the system they would have a lot more reproduction. They got it, and it wasn't until they saw the unintended and unexpected consequences of all that that they realized, this is a disaster. It's an ecological disaster and a fire disaster and it would take probably another 20 years after 1942 before the first salvos of that really went public.

TED SIMONS: So now we have forest management. A lot of people on the same page. What about industry? We talk about logging, about the history of logging, how it may have contributed, alleviated. Where does industry stand now?
DIANE VOSICK: Well, we have had about a 15-year to 20-year hiatus in terms of the retooling of industry and its relationship to the forest. Historically before the '90s, industry was removing large trees. There was a lot of economic value in those large trees. Through a series of events in the '90s, commercial logging as we know it in the southwest came to an end. But meanwhile we were continuing to add trees and biomass to the forests but we had nobody that wanted the small material that was erupting upped these forests, so for the last ten years, we have been actually paying the taxpayers, the forest service have been paying people to actually go in and thin. The exciting change that is represented by the announcement of the successful contract for 300,000 acres of thinning on Friday, they are actually going to pay to go back on to forest service land and thin these trees because they represent a manufacturing industry where they can create windows and doors and a bunch of manufactured products with multiple sizes of wood. They don't need big trees. They don't need the huge trees any more. They figured out what to do with small trees, and they intend to create biodiesel so their intention is to create and energy product.

TED SIMONS: But there will be some big trees taken, correct? Some environmentalists are concerned the camel's nose will get under the tent so to speak.

DIANE VOSICK: There will be big trees taken where it's indicated they should be taken. In other words, where there are too many large trees for whatever reason, perhaps these trees are in a wet spot where they -- if fire had continued to go or perhaps they are in some places where they are denser than would be indicated naturally, those trees will come out, but that's a decision made in collaboration with the citizens and the forest service in terms of deciding how we're going to proceed with restoring the forest.

Ted Simons: that idea of sustainable forest industries, viable?

Mary Lata: Yes. Definitely viable. Part of it is the scale of the project, which is necessary to really make the whole eco-system of the Mogollon Rim viable we need to do it on a large scale. That also makes it viable for industry to work at a scale with these small trees that they can provide jobs and building industry back into the economy of northern Arizona.

TED SIMONS: As far as we get some of this thinning done, the climate may change a little bit perhaps. Get rid of that a little bit. How long do we have to wait before we can say our forests are somewhat healthy? [laughter]

STEVE PYNE: I don't know that there's -- I think fairly shortly we can say it will be better than what it was, but there is no end point to this. That's important. Putting fire back in the system, it's not an inoculation. Oh, good, we got in, we did our burn. Now it's safe. We walk away from it. This is in perpetuity. This is spring cleaning. Every year you're going to be out there forever. It's always going to -- the idea is to make the system more resilient where you can get the fires you want and prevent the fires you don't want. You can do that better. It's forever and it's going to be an ongoing negotiation.

TED SIMONS: To get ecologically sustainable forests will take forever. Can we increase the speed a little bit?

DIANE VOSICK: That's what's exciting about what we're doing up on the Mogollon Rim. We have four national forests working together. We have 2.5 million acres of Ponderosa pine, the largest continuous swath of Ponderosa pine in the nation. We are now trying to operate at the scale of the problem. This is revolutionary and it's new. It's just been in the last ten years. We have just -- an environmental analysis which the forest service has to do before it acts on 1 million acres to find this 300,000 acres we're going to thin. That's great news. We used to do this at the scale of 10,000 acres. This is revolutionary in Arizona.

TED SIMONS: Last word on this. Are you encouraged?

MARY LATA: Oh, I'm delighted. This is great. We're going to thin 300,000. We're proposing to burn 600,000 acres. That's what it needs. As Steve mentioned it's not a one-time thing. The fire return interval for this system was on the order of about every ten years on average. We have 600,000 acres which we would want to burn roughly about every ten years. That's a lot of acres. We have the ignition, we had the lightning and with all the people in the forest we get as everybody knows we get a lot of ignitions from humans as well. Those we try to put out, but the lightning ignitions means we'll have fire. It's a matter of what condition the forest is when it happens.

TED SIMONS: Good to have you here.

ALL: Thank you.

Diane Vosick:NAU's Ecological Restoration Institute; Stephen Pyne:Fire History Expert, ASU School of Life Sciences; Dr. Mary Lata:U.S. Forest Service;

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