Sustainability: Arizona Forests and Watersheds Documentary

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Arizona PBS is airing a documentary, “Fire and Water: Restoring Arizona’s Forests,” that shows how Arizona is bridging long-standing divides to restore our public lands and protect our water supply. We’ll talk about the Salt River Project-produced show, which will air at 9pm on December 7.

TED SIMONS: ARIZONA PBS IS AIRING A DOCUMENTARY LATER THIS EVENING, IT'S TITLED, "FIRE AND WATER: RESTORING ARIZONA'S FORESTS," AND IT SHOWS HOW THE STATE IS ATTEMPTING TO BRIDGE LONG-STANDING DIVIDES TO RESTORE ARIZONA'S PUBLIC LANDS AND WATER SUPPLIES. THE DOCUMENTARY IS PRODUCED BY SALT RIVER PROJECT AND AIRS TONIGHT AT 9:00.

NARRATOR: CATASTROPHIC WILDFIRE TAKES NO PRISONERS. HEALTHY FORESTS CLEAN THE AIR WE BREATHE, PURIFY THE WATER WE DRINK AND OUR HOME TO WILDLIFE. IN ARIZONA, THE PONDEROSA PINE IS THE GRANDFATHER OF THE WOODS. WITHOUT MATURE TREES, THE ECOSYSTEM IS AT RISK.

ETHAN AUMACK: THE WATERSHED OF ARIZONA, THE HEAD WATERS ARE SOME OF THE MOST IMPORTANT FEATURES WE HAVE IN THIS STATE BOTH IN TERM OF ENVIRONMENTAL VALUES CONTAINED WITHIN THE WATERSHED AND IN TERMS OF SERVICES AND ENVIRONMENTAL VALUES PROVIDED TO FOLKS DOWN STREAM.

JEFF WHITNEY: THIS IS THE LARGEST STAND IN THE WORLD, IT PROVIDES A NUMBER OF ECOSYSTEM SERVICES WE VALUE. A SUSTAINABLE CLEAN WATER SUPPLY, AS WELL AS CLEAN AIR.

BRUCE HALLIN: WHAT HAPPENS IN THE FORESTED LANDS HAS A SIGNIFICANT IMPACT ON THE QUALITY, RELIABILITY AND SUSTAINABILITY OF THE WATER IN THE VALLEY.

NARRATOR: THE SALT AND VERDE RIVERS PROVIDE WATER TO MILLIONS. BUT WILDFIRES IN THESE CRUCIAL WATERSHEDS HAVE BEEN GROWING EXPONENTIALLY. IN RECENT YEARS, THE SIZE AND SCALE HAS CHANGED DRAMATICALLY. THE RECORD FOR BIGGEST WILDFIRE IN ARIZONA'S HISTORY HAS BEEN BROKEN AGAIN AND AGAIN. IN 2002, ARIZONA WAS INTRODUCED TO A NEW BREED OF DESTRUCTION. AS TWO FIRES MERGED INTO ONE CATACLYSMIC EVENT, RODEO-CHEDISKI DEVOURED 470,000-ACRES, OVER 700 SQUARE MILES, AN AREA LARGER THAN THE CITIES OF PHOENIX, SCOTTSDALE AND TEMPE COMBINED. WHEN IT WENT TOWARD THE MOUNTAIN TOWNS LIKE PINEDALE, MORE THAN 30,000 PEOPLE WERE EVACUATED. MANY PEOPLE LIKE STEPHANIE HUNT RETURNED TO FIND THEIR HOME BURNED TO THE GROUND.

STEPHANIE HUNT: WE PULLED INTO THE NEIGHBORHOOD AND FOUND WHERE OUR HOUSE USED TO BE AND OUR NEIGHBORS' HOUSES. MY BREATH CAUGHT. I COULDN'T BREATHE. THERE WAS NOTHING LEFT BUT PART OF THE CHIMNEY. YOU THINK YOU ARE PREPARED. OH, YOUR HOUSE BURNED DOWN, THIS AND THAT, BUT WHEN YOU ACTUALLY SEE IT -- IT'S JUST SUCH AN IMPACT. WE JUST CRIED FOREVER OVER THE LOSS OF OUR HOME.

CHARLIE ESTER: ONE OF THE TERRIBLE AFTER EFFECTS OF FIRES IS THAT THE GROUND BECOMES IMPENETRABLE TO WATER, HYDROPHOBIC, LIKE A ROOFTOP. THE WATER RUSHES OFF THE LAND. IT'S SO POWERFUL BECAUSE IT MOVES TO QUICKLY, IT STRIPS ALL THE DIRT, SOIL, AND EVERYTHING WITH IT, ASH, EVERYTHING LEFT BEHIND BY THE FIRE.

IT CHANGES THE WAY THE WATER MOVES ACROSS THE ECOSYSTEM AND THAT AFFECTS THE LOCAL FOREST AND DOWNSTREAM USERS AS WELL.

NARRATOR: FORESTS IN THE ARIZONA MOUNTAINS AND CITIES AND DESERT BELOW ARE PART OF THE SAME WATERSHED. PLANTS, ANIMALS AND HUMANS ARE ALL CONNECTED THROUGH THE SAME WATER SOURCE.

KATHRYN SORENSEN: PHOENIX'S DRINKING WATER COMES FROM THE MOUNTAINS OF NORTHERN AND EASTERN ARIZONA. IT'S SNOW MELT AND PRECIPITATION FROM THE MOUNTAINS THAT MAKE ITS WAY TO THE SALT AND VERDE RIVER SYSTEMS THAT THEN FEED THE CANALS HERE AT THE WATER TREATMENT PLANT.

NOW WE HAVE A HUGE BURNED AREA THAT WILL PRODUCE WATER WITH TOXIC ELEMENTS FLOWING INTO OUR RESERVOIRS AND AFFECT OUR WATER QUALITY

KATHRYN SORENSEN: WHEN THE WATER IS LOADED WITH ASH AND SETTLEMENT WE CALL IT TURBID WATER. THEY OVERWHELM OUR FILTERS. THE ONLY THING TO GUARANTEE SAFE, CLEAN, RELIABLE DELIVERY TO OUR CUSTOMERS IS OUR WATERSHED.

TED SIMONS: AGAIN, THAT'S TONIGHT AT 9:00. WITH US IS JEFF WHITNEY, ARIZONA STATE FORESTER, CLIFFORD DILS, DIRECTOR OF FORESTRY FOR THE U.S. FOREST SERVICE SOUTHWEST REGION, AND BRUCE HALLIN, WATER SUPPLY DIRECTOR FOR THE SALT RIVER PROJECT. GOOD TO HAVE YOU ALL HERE. THE GOAL BEHIND THE DOCUMENTARY, WHAT DO YOU WANT US TO SEE?

JEFF WHITNEY: THE TAKE HOME IS THAT OUR LANDSCAPES IN ARIZONA AT THE HIGHER ELEVATIONS CAPTURE SNOW FALL EQUATING TO WATER FOR THOSE OF US IN THE SOUTHERN PART OF THE STATE. PRIMARILY THE PHOENIX METROPOLITAN AREA.

TED SIMONS: IS THAT SOMETHING THAT GETS LOST IN THE MIX SOMETIMES?

CLIFFORD DILS: I THINK PEOPLE DON'T REALIZE IT COMES FROM THE TOP OF THE MOUNTAIN AND WORKS ITS WAY DOWN. IF THAT'S FUNCTIONING PROPERLY, IS HEALTHY, ISN'T BEING LOST IN CATASTROPHIC WILDFIRE, IT WILL END UP IN PEOPLE'S FAUCETS IN THE VALLEY.

BRUCE HALLIN: ESPECIALLY WHEN YOU LIVE IN THE DESERT, THERE IS A DISCONNECT. YOU HAVE A 13,000-SQUARE-MILE WATERSHED. IT'S A COUPLE OF HUNDRED MILES TO WHERE IT'S GENERATED AND STORED IN THE RESERVOIRS. THE DOCUMENTARY IS TO EDUCATE PEOPLE ABOUT WHAT'S AT RISK WHEN IT COMES TO CATASTROPHIC WILDFIRES AND TO GIVE A BETTER COMPREHENSIVE UNDERSTANDING OF IT'S NOT JUST ABOUT THE WATER TUBE, BUT THERE'S PEOPLE THAT LIVE UP THERE AND THERE ARE CHALLENGES ASSOCIATED WITH REESTABLISHING A FOREST PRODUCTS INDUSTRY AND CLEAN THOSE FORESTS SO WE'RE NOT FACING THESE CATASTROPHIC FIRES.

JEFF WHITNEY: IT'S A KEY POINT. ONE OF THE BIGGEST CHALLENGES THAT WE ALL FACE AND WORKING TOGETHER ON RIGHT NOW IS A SUPPLY CHAIN TO HARVEST AND HAUL AND PROCESS FIBER OUT OF THE WOODS, AND TRY TO TURN IT INTO A COMMERCIAL PRODUCT TO UNDERWRITE THE WORK THAT NEEDS TO BE DONE TO RESTORE OUR WATERSHEDS. THE OTHER SIDE OF IT BEYOND THE SUPPLY CHAIN IS THE PACE AND SCALE. WE HAVE FOUR AND A HALF MILLION ACRES OF PONDEROSA PINE IN NEED OF MANAGEMENT. AND IT'S NOT AN INEXPENSIVE PROPOSITION.

TED SIMONS: WE'VE DONE SHOWS IN THE PAST ABOUT THE FOREST RESTORATION INITIATIVE. IT SOUNDED LIKE A GRAND IDEA AND ALL SIDES SEEMED TO COME TO THE TABLE AND AGREED, YOU HAVE TO THIN THE FOREST, GET BUSINESS INVOLVED, FIND THE SMALL TREES NOT NECESSARILY THE BIG TREES. SEEMS IT CAN'T GET OFF THE GROUND. WHAT'S GOING ON?

CLIFFORD DILS: WHAT'S DIFFERENT FROM THE EARLIER SHOWS, IS WE HAVE MORE PARTNERS IN INDUSTRY THAN WE HAD JUST A FOCUS ON A SINGLE PARTNER. ON THE EAST SIDE WE OFFERED OVER 15,000 ACRES FOR INDUSTRY ON THAT SIDE. WE HAVE THE BEGINNING OF SOME INDUSTRY ON THE WEST SIDE OUTSIDE OF FLAGSTAFF. WE ARE GETTING SOME NEW PARTNERS AND IT'S GOING TO TAKE EVERYBODY. IT TAKES NOT JUST ONE ENTITY TO MAKE THIS HAPPEN.

TED SIMONS: THE CHALLENGE OF GETTING THE BUSINESS SIDE THAT CAN MAKE A PROFIT OUT OF THINNING THESE FORESTS AND ENVIRONMENTALISTS WANT TO MAKE SURE THAT THE OLD GROWTH IS LEFT ALONE. CAN IT BE DONE?

BRUCE HALLIN: YOU SEE FULL SUPPORT FROM ALL GROUPS. EVERYONE KNOWS WHAT THE PROBLEM IS. EVERYONE KNOWS WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE, AT LEAST THOSE FAMILIAR WITH THE ISSUE. NOW THE CHALLENGE IS TO GET INDUSTRY UP AND RUNNING, CAPITAL INVESTMENT NEEDED TO ACCELERATE THE TREATMENTS. IF WE DON'T, WE'LL CONTINUE TO SEE THE CATASTROPHIC WILDFIRES, NOT NECESSARILY IMPACTING WATER SUPPLY, BUT PEOPLE THAT ACTUALLY RESIDE IN THE AREAS. FROM MY PERSPECTIVE, IT'S A CAPACITY ISSUE. WE DON'T HAVE THE CAPACITY TO PROVIDE ENOUGH INCENTIVE FOR INDUSTRY, FOR THEM TO UNDERSTAND THE ECONOMICS ASSOCIATED WITH WHAT IT TAKES TO MOVE THAT MATERIAL. WE ARE MAKING ADJUSTMENTS, MAKING PROGRESS, AS CLIFF SAID, BUT WE NEED TO ACCELERATE IT AND PUSH AND GET MORE AND MORE ACRES TREATED.

TED SIMONS: THE IDEA OF THE WILDFIRE SUPPRESSION WAS A MISTAKE ALL THOSE YEARS, ALL THAT TIME. IS THAT PRETTY MUCH ACCEPTED NOW?

JEFF WHITNEY: IT IS. HINDSIGHT IS ALWAYS 2020 LOOKING IN THE MIRROR. FIRE IS AN ECOLOGICAL MECHANISM IN LANDSCAPES WITH THE EXCEPTION OF THE SONORAN DESERT. WITH THE EXCLUSION OF WILDFIRE OVER SEVEN TO EIGHT DECADES WE HAVE SEEN A DRAMATIC INCREASE IN THE NUMBER OF TREES PER ACRE. MANY PEOPLE NOT USED TO THE LANDSCAPES IN ARIZONA PARTICULARLY THE PONDEROSA PINE OF THE MOGOLLON RIM. THEY SEE THOSE STANDS OF SMALL TREES THAT ARE OVERLY DENSE AND THEY THINK THAT'S NATURAL. IT'S FAR FROM NATURAL. HISTORICALLY, THE EARLY SETTLERS FOUND A GRASSLAND PARK WITH LARGE MAJESTIC INDIVIDUAL PONDEROSA PINES, WITH AN OPEN CHARACTER.

TED SIMONS: I THINK ANYONE WHO COMES FROM THE FOREST BACK EAST, FIRST TIME YOU SEE A FOREST IN ARIZONA YOU THINK IT'S WEIRD. THERE'S NOTHING ON THE GROUND. IT'S NOT SO WEIRD ANYMORE. THAT'S A PROBLEM. CAN IT BE DONE? YOU DRIVE TO THE B LINE AND THERE ARE DEAD TREES EVERYWHERE. CAN YOU GET THEM OUT OF THERE?

CLIFFORD DILS: I THINK IT GOES BACK TO FINDING THE INDUSTRY, THE PARTNERS TO HELP US DO IT. IT'S AN IMMENSE AREA. IT'S ABOUT 2.5 MILLION ACRES. WE ARE CHISELING AWAY AT IT. WE ARE TRYING TO FIND THE KEY AREAS TO WORK ON TO FIND SUBDIVISIONS, HOMES, EVERYTHING ON TOP OF THE RIM. THE CRITICAL WATERSHEDS DO TREATMENTS THERE TO BREAK UP A WILDFIRE IF IT COMES IN. I DON'T WANT TO GIVE ANYONE THE IMPRESSION WE ARE GOING TO TREAT EVERY TREE, BUT I THINK WE CAN STRATEGICALLY MAKE A DIFFERENCE IN ARIZONA. I THINK WE ARE MAKING THE MOVEMENT TODAY.

TED SIMONS: THE IMPACT OF LAND PRACTICES, GRAZING, HOUSING DEVELOPMENT, THE WHOLE NINE YARDS. DOES THAT PLAY INTO THIS AND HOW MUCH?

BRUCE HALLIN: JEFF AND OTHERS CAN ANSWER THAT QUESTION BUT FROM OUR PERSPECTIVE A HEALTHIER FOREST ENSURES HEALTHIER LAND USE PRACTICES WITHIN THOSE FORESTS. SO THAT INCLUDES GRAZING, OTHER RECREATIONAL OPPORTUNITIES, WILDLIFE, ENDANGERED SPECIES. THE BIGGEST THREAT TO ALL THOSE VALUES TODAY IN ARIZONA IS CATASTROPHIC WILDFIRES.

TED SIMONS: AND THE BIGGEST THREAT TO WATER.

BRUCE HALLIN: YES.

TED SIMONS: PEOPLE FORGET THAT WILDFIRES CHANGE THE LANDSCAPE IN A WAY THAT WATER IS AFFECTED AS WELL.

JEFF WHITNEY: ABSOLUTELY. WE DEVELOPED SOMETHING CALLED THE NATIONAL WILDFIRE COHESIVE STRATEGY. IT WAS ALL JURISDICTIONS FROM CITIES AND TOWNS, NATIONAL ASSOCIATIONS AND COUNTIES, INTERNATIONAL ASSOCIATIONS, FIRE CHIEF, FEDERAL AGENCIES, STATE AGENCIES AND TRIBES. AND IT'S A THREE PRONG EFFORT. IT'S RESILIENT LANDSCAPES, FIRE ADAPTIVE COMMUNITIES AND A SAFE AND EFFECTIVE RESPONSE TO UNWANTED WILDFIRE AND RECOGNIZING WHERE POSSIBLE TO USE FIRE AS A MANAGEMENT TOOL. WE HAVE THE WILL. WE HAVE THE SOCIAL LICENSE BRUCE REFERRED TO IT THROUGH THE LARGEST ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT STUDY EVER DONE ON THE PART OF THE FOREST SERVICE IN ARIZONA. THE THING WE ARE LACKING AT THIS POINT IS INDUSTRIAL CAPACITY.

TED SIMONS: ARE WE GOING TO GET THE INDUSTRIAL CAPACITY? IS IT GOING TO HAPPEN?

CLIFFORD DILS: WE THINK WE ARE MOVING IN THE RIGHT DIRECTION. WE HAVE SEEN CHANGES IN THE LAST YEAR. IT'S NOT WHERE WE NEED TO BE YET, BUT WHERE INDUSTRY STRUGGLES IS WHERE THEY DON'T HAVE A SUPPLY. AND THAT'S WHERE WE HAVE AN ADVANTAGE. WE'VE GOT THESE ENVIRONMENTAL IMPACT STATEMENTS, WE HAVE ACREAGE IDENTIFIED FOR TREATMENT. WE JUST NEED PEOPLE TO COME OUT AND DO THE WORK FOR US.

BRUCE HALLIN: I THINK WE NEED TO BE MORE CREATIVE AND INNOVATIVE THAN WE HAVE BEEN WHEN WE VIEWED THE FOREST PRODUCT INDUSTRY. ONE OF THE ITEMS WE HAVE BEEN WORKING ON IS A BROADER SCALE ECONOMIC ANALYSIS WHEN YOU LOOK AT THAT MATERIAL IN THE FOREST, WHAT'S IT WORTH? WHAT DOES IT LOOK LIKE? WHAT'S IT GOING TO TAKE TO MOVE THE MATERIAL AND HOW ARE YOU GOING TO ATTRACT INDUSTRY TO MOVE THE MATERIAL?

TED SIMONS: WE ARE RUNNING OUT OF TIME. I NEED YES OR NO ONLY. OPTIMISTIC?

CLIFFORD DILS: VERY OPTIMISTIC.

TED SIMONS: OPTIMISTIC?

BRUCE HALLIN: I'M GETTING THERE.

TED SIMONS: FAIR ENOUGH. GOOD TO HAVE YOU ALL HERE. THAT IS IT FOR NOW. I'M TED SIMONS. THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR JOINING US. YOU HAVE A GREAT EVENING!

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