Opinion Editorials

El Niño or not, the summer of 2016 may prove to be as dry and hazardous as any other. Unfortunately for Arizona, that means wildfires will continue to grow in strength and intensity, threatening more property and human life than ever before.

This wasn’t always so. In the 1990s, wildfires rarely spread to more than four million acres annually in the United States. But in recent years, wildfires have torched well over nine million. Experts say that more than 20 percent of Arizona’s pine forests have been consumed by wildfire over the past 15 years. 

The fact is, our forests are overgrown and unhealthy, and drought has turned them into matchsticks on an unprecedented scale. I believe addressing this crisis is one of Arizona’s top environmental challenges for the 21st century.

The key to mitigating the risk of catastrophic wildfires and making sure that our children and grandchildren inherit the same natural beauty that we enjoy today lies in federal support for forest management initiatives in our rural communities.

Some rural communities are turning to creative low-cost strategies to fight wildfires. Take, for example, a project led by Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin. She deployed dozens of 100,000-gallon surplus rubber military storage bladders across the Mogollon Rim to help helicopters and fire trucks rapidly refill their water tanks to put out fires faster. Tommie calls it “redneck ingenuity.” I call it brilliant.

From Capitol Hill, Sen. Jeff Flake and I worked to pass a provision in the national defense authorization bill to convert excess military aircraft into large wildfire airtankers and smokejumper transports. We’ve also proposed a law to reform the Forest Service’s ballooning wildfire budget so that the federal government isn’t simply throwing more money at wildfires, but instead investing in projects to reduce wildfire risk.

In addition, Congress recently passed an omnibus appropriations bill that supported our recommendation to increase the wildfire budget while also providing $905 million for timber and hazardous fuels reduction programs.

Of course, the best ways to stop a wildfire is to deprive it of fuel before it starts. The old adage “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” couldn’t be truer.

I continue to make the case in Washington that the best way to reduce wildfire risk is to encourage private industry to thin our overgrown forests. A sustainable wood-products industry driven by market forces can remove dry and diseased trees faster than any government agency alone.

We’ve seen it work firsthand. About 10 years ago, the Forest Service approved the nation’s first landscape-scale Forest Stewardship Contract right here in Arizona’s White Mountains. A handful of rural companies stepped forward to thin approximately 50,000 acres stretching from Heber to Alpine. The program was so successful that it seeded the region with dozens of small mills, biomass plants, and wood product companies that are putting hundreds of Arizonans to work while making our forests safer.

Today, the White Mountain industry is a major contributor to the Forest Service’s goal of treating 2.4 million acres under the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI). A reported 85 percent of all mechanical thinning under 4FRI last year was performed by companies based in the White Mountain.

But, the gains in the White Mountains are at risk if the Forest Service doesn’t open more federal land to these contractors. In one of the most fire-prone parts of our state, some mills have been mothballed because the Forest Service has been slow to approve the release of hundreds of thousands of acres of land that must be mechanically thinned. An innovative 27-megawatt biomass plant located in Snowflake, NovoBioPower, can supply electricity to many thousands of homes in rural Arizona, but only if there’s a steady supply of small trees and woody brush—the very kindling we need removed from our forests immediately.

In just the last few weeks, Sen. Flake and I held several meetings with Forest Service Chief Tidwell urging him to expedite the issuance of project areas. Chief Tidwell has assured us that the Forest Service is very close to releasing the long-awaited Rocky Arroyo and Larson project areas, totaling 98,000 acres. It took nearly three years— three wildfire seasons—for the Forest Service to process those areas. We also visited eastern Arizona this week to discuss our meetings directly with a number of local mills and leaders.

It’s not enough to keep Arizona’s forest industry simply afloat. If we want to achieve genuine forest restoration, we need to build an industry that can treat our dense forests and sustain them as a renewable resource for decades to come.