Horizon, Host: Ted Simons

June 13, 2011


Host: Ted Simons

Forest Health

  |   Video
  • Experts say Arizona’s catastrophic wildfires are the result of unhealthy, unnaturally dense forests that are the product of America’s forest management policies. The Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) is an effort to create healthier ecosystems on parts of four Arizona forests. Learn about the challenges facing 4FRI from stakeholders Wally Covington, Regents’ professor of Forest Ecology and executive director of the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University; Henry Provencio of the U.S. Forest Service; Ethan Aumack of the Grand Canyon Trust and a representative of the Center for Biological Diversity.
Guests:
  • Wally Covington - Regents' professor of Forest Ecology and executive director of the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University
  • Henry Provencio - U.S. Forest Service
  • Ethan Aumack - Grand Canyon Trust and a representative of the Center for Biological Diversity
Category: Environment   |   Keywords: forest, fires,

View Transcript
Ted Simons: Good evening and welcome to "Horizon." I'm Ted Simons. A special session of the state legislature to extend unemployment benefits adjourned today with no action taken on a move by the governor to extend jobless benefits for about 15,000 people. The extensions would have cost the state nothing but Republican opponents saw the assistance as a disincentive for the jobless to look for work. Governor Brewer issued a statement expressing disappointment with the legislature's inaction. The wallow fire has burned more than 452,000 acres, or about 706 square miles. 36 buildings have been destroyed and according to the Associated Press, 1200 more are threatened. The wallow fire still hasn't burned as many acres as 2002's Rodeo-Chedeski fire, but it's getting close. That fire led to the creation of Four Forest Restoration Initiative, a collaborative effort to restore ecosystems on national forests in Arizona. Joining us now to talk about the initiative are Henry Provencio, the U.S. Forest Service's team leader on the initial if I have. Wally Covington, executive director of the forest restoration institute at Northern Arizona University. Ethan Aumauk, director of restoration programs for the Grand Canyon trust. An organization dedicated to protecting and restoring the Colorado plateau. And Taylor McKinnon, director of public land campaigns for the center for biological diversity, an organization committed to protecting ecosystems so that all species can survive. Thank you all for joining us tonight on "Horizon."

All: Thank you.

Ted Simons: Henry, before we get to how we prevent these things in the future, what do we got going now? Is there any optimism up there with this wallow fire?

Henry Provencio: I think we are seeing a great deal of optimism. We are not out of the woods yet but that fire is as you know has grown exponentially. It's starting to transition out to the Pinion Juniper on the North side in the grasslands. It's much more manageable habitat in terms of fire behavior. We still have a lot of concern on the flanks on the east and west flanks of that fire. There's a great deal of potential for that fire to get bigger but we have had some weather, winds mostly, that subsided to help us really get a handle on it.

Ted Simons: This is such a massive fire. While we had the 2002 Rodeo-Chedeski fire that was even bigger. These things are huge historically so what we are used to in this state. It seems that way. Is it true?

Wally Covington: These are completely unnatural fires. And to understand why we're getting these fires you have to go back about 130 years to the late 1800s and with you're American settlement of the Southwest heavy livestock grazing began and was actually encouraged by early foresters as a way to stop the natural fires that burned just through the surface underneath the canopies of the old trees. These fires maintained these open park-like conditions. But once the fire was removed, then the stage was set for population eruptions of trees, which began around the turn of the century, the last century. As these trees gradually grew up and got big enough so that fires could climb what we call a fuel ladder into the canopy of the old trees than we started seeing crown fires.

Ted Simons: Crown fires are the destructive fires. Correct? These are not natural fires. This is the reason why we are seeing these things jumping so quickly so fast. Correct?

Ethan Aumack: That's correct. We are seeing fires that at tens to hundreds of thousands of acres in scale. These are not natural fires at that scale. They are burning very severely and our challenge in front of us is to get the fire size back down, get the fire severity back down and that's what the Four Forest Restoration Initiative is about.

Ted Simons: So Taylor, the question is, are the forests in Arizona, we'll keep it here but are forests too dense?

Taylor McKinnon: Our Ponderosa pine forests in Arizona are too dense. We have got, you know, places where there are thousands of small trees per acre where historically there were 50, 100, 150 trees per acre. So we have seen a, just an explosion of tree density over the last century.

Ted Simons: So how do we do this? Talk about the initiative in a second here in terms of matter of fact and concrete stuff. But in general, what do you do? Because how do you get that stuff, that's a lot of small trees. What do you do?

Henry Provencio: That is tough. It's a tough challenge that we have been dealing with really at least for the last 20 years. And in earnest I would say since the Rodeo-Chedeski fire in Arizona. You know, I think there's been about 200,000 acres of analysis that we have done since the Rodeo-Chedeski fire. It's not like we have been doing nothing. And largely those analyses have been done in the urban interface where there's a threat, potential loss to community. What's at issue, though, is, how do we pay for those treatments? How do we get those treatments accomplished? We planned about 200,000. We have only done maybe 40,000, 50,000 acres of actual treatment it's a matter of scale. Doing work we need to do on the ground for restoration. And yet we acknowledge, they need to be able to make a living in order for them to be here.

Ted Simons: I want to bring that up right now as we look at some of the devastation of the Rodeo-Chedeski fire from 2002. One of our representatives, Representative Gosar was quoted saying the cause includes is a federal ban on logging and old growth removal, that's one of the causes of the fire. That is a valid statement?

Wally Covington: Well not entirely. Really the problem is not the old growth trees. These are the trees 200, 300 years old. But it's the younger trees that came in since fire exclusion. These trees are typically 90 years old, 80 to 90 years old. So those are the trees that need to be removed. And really what we call that is restoration thinning when you remove those younger trees. The Four Forest Restoration Initiative, an ecological restoration in general, really treasures the rare parts of the landscape and in the southwestern forests it's these old growth trees that are very rare.

Ted Simons: But we hear loggers say and pro-business representatives say there's nothing they can do with these smaller trees or these younger trees. It's the old growth trees, the big trees that runs their industry. They can't find anything to do with the smaller ones. Again, that is a valid concern?

Ethan Aumack: I don't think it is in that way. We had a system historically that was based on harvesting old and large trees, and that system was maybe reflective of the values of the time. But it ultimately wasn't sustainable ecologically and wasn't sustainable economically. In the '90s we transitioned towards this discussion about restoration centered around harvesting and utilizing smaller trees that are less valuable than older trees ecologically and economically and one of the reasons we are planning it at the scales we are planning, beyond the ecological rationale for planning at that scale is that we can provide a large enough volume of low-quality material to allow businesses to make a go of it. We have several proponents for industry for utilizing that material that believe they can.

Ted Simons: Do you agree with that? Is there a way to get industry going on this? Because it just sounds like, every time we do this topic, it sounds like they want the old growth and if they don't get old growth they are not --

Taylor McKinnon: Yeah, we hear this narrative that repeats but it no longer reflects reality. After the Rodeo-Chedeski fire, the Forest Service issued what was called the white mountain stewardship contract. And that was a stewardship contract that would facilitate restoration treatments in the white mountains. Just to the east of where the Rodeo-Chedeski fire burned in the area where the Wallow Fire is now burning, that contract was designed to facilitate up to 150,000 acres of restoration work across 10 years. As of now, about 50,000 acres of that work has occurred. Businesses have sprouted up doing that work who use small trees. They are designed to use small trees them don't need and in many cases don't want the bigger trees. They're restoration businesses. They are not old growth logging businesses. A huge difference in those two things.

Henry Provencio: You know, Ted, this reminds me of a phone call I received actually from a potential bidder on the contract and he actually asked me, what do you have to do with the big trees? Do you have to take them? He didn't want the big trees. And by the time this show airs we should have requests for proposals out and that's the first step in actually issuing a contract. For restoration. And that will be the largest contract ever issued by the Forest Service. We really don't know what industry is going to bring us. However, we are trying to be as open as possible to accept any potential ideas on businesses, and through the evaluation process, we hope we will award one that will focus really on the trees that we deem necessary for removal for restoration.

Ted Simons: And another criticism I hear regarding land policy and forest policy right now is that so much is being done to protect endangered species that it's putting the entire forest at risk. Talk to us about that.

Wally Covington: Well, I don't think that's really quite the problem that some people think it is. One of the tenets of ecological restoration is to restore natural, self-regulating ecosystems. So get them into their natural state. The kind of conditions that these species evolved under, and once the forest and the rest of the landscape is in a natural condition, then endangered species problems and threatened species problems should be ameliorated quite a bit. This is one of the great hopes of ecological restoration is to restore self-regulating ecosystems where natural fire plays its fundamental role in keeping the ecosystem in balance, where predators keep the food web in balance. That's the real hope of restoration over the long haul. It's not just breaking up large crown fires but also restoring natural ecosystems.

Ted Simons: So let's go from there and talk about the Four Forest Restoration Initiative. What exactly are we talking about?

Ethan Aumack: Well, we are talking about something real big. And it's occurring at the scale of which these wildfires are unfortunately occurring. So after the Rodeo-Chedeski fire in 2002, a number of folks from left to right across the political spectrum came together and they realized, and we realized, that we needed to be working at the same scale these wildfires were burning at. So over the course of almost a decade, we have been working to build agreement about landscape scale restoration. We have been working to build agreement about the appropriate role of industry and helping to offset costs for restoration treatments. We have been working on a daily basis for the last, again, almost 10 years to build out what is now a 2.4 million acre initiative with planning at much larger scales than we have done before and it's based on I think a fairly hopeful notion that we can be in a very different place 10 years from now than we are now, that we can be planning a treating at scales to tens of hundreds of thousands of acres.

Ted Simons: Can we be doing that in 10 years or will we still be planning and fighting court battles and having everybody at each other's throats to a certain degree? I know the stakeholders on this initiative seem like they are on the same page but there's a lot of folks outside the initiative who have all sorts of ideas. Where are we going to be in 10 years?

Taylor McKinnon: We will see. Where we need to be is in the midst of a big implementation effort. We need to be well down the road of getting work done on the ground. We are talking about restoring, an entire ecosystem, the largest contiguous Ponderosa pine ecosystem in the world. It's incredibly ambitious. And I am hopeful that we will be in a place where we have forged the agreement and we are able to move forward, everyone, together. And I think that's the work that we have been doing in the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, is to forge that agreement up front so we can move with the implementation later.

Ted Simons: Henry, give me an example. Let's say we are working at a forest we are looking at now. Let's say it's got a lot of trees on it. Let's say it's an acre and it's got 100 trees. We will use easy numbers here. What would the initiative call for on that kind of land? Obviously exponentially larger but building new roads? Are we cutting stuff down? Are we burning? What are we doing?

Henry Provencio: Yes. We are doing that. However, we are not building new proceeds. This country has been logged for a long time. Probably the course of 100 years. There's many, many, many roads throughout that we can use, and part of the initiative is actually closing roads so the goal, part of the goal is actually to close in some cases up to 1/3 of the mileage of roads that's out in the forest. And as far as what we are going to do on each acre of land it depends. To be honest, to be truly responsive to restoration needs of our ecosystems, we need to be flexible out there. Some acres are going to be thicker than others. There's so many things to consider. The goal of this will be the flexibility that we have when we are out in the forests. And again, the goal is restoration. It is not supplying the timber industry.

Ted Simons: Talk to us again about what we can expect. The words like "Landscape scale restoration," and obviously we have talked about restoring forest ecosystems. But when we hear those things and I notice in the initiative you talk about using the best available science for this. We can't get people to agree on any science on this program half the time. How are you going to get the best available science passed the different stakeholders?

Wally Covington: Well, it's not exactly getting it past the different stakeholders. The approach we have taken in the Four Forest Restoration Initiative is a learning approach where we are all trying to understand what's known about natural conditions, what naturally is on the land, what's the natural carrying capacity of the land for trees and for open areas and so on? And then what are the effects of different treatments on trying to restore those natural patterns? So it's not -- it's really a matter of everyone. I mean, we have got, of course, mostly nonscientific people that are parts of the Four Forest Restoration Initiative. But reading the literature and discussing what the evidence is, what's the best available evidence for what the forests were like and what are the effects of different restoration treatments?

Ted Simons: And the idea again of sustainable forest industries. That was mentioned in the initiative. Is that what we are talking about, some of these businesses you referred to earlier as going in there and actually not necessarily even wanting old growth trees but the brush and the smaller trees and those sorts of things?

Ethan Aumack: That's right. The first priority here is to have forests that are ecologically sustainable. We want communities that are protected from a large wildfires. And we recognize that we need a sustainable economy to support that process. So as Henry mentioned, this isn't being driven by the economy and by industry needs. But we really feel hopeful that industry can be supporting and to a certain degree be supported by this effort. It can be job creating. And it can be sustainable over a long period of time, and we needs it. So that's the challenge. It's a new conversation here. It's different than the conversation we had in the '80s and '90s. It's a different kind of industry than we had during those years. It's an entirely different thing. And it's an exciting process to think about building that new kind of industry in this effort.

Ted Simons: Is it viable? Is it possible to get these different stake holders, with different ideas and approaches, together and get something done?

Taylor McKinnon: I think it is. I mean, that's work we have been doing. And we have made tremendous progress on hammering after some tough issues, I would say.

Ted Simons: Give us an example of some. Tougher issues.

Taylor McKinnon: Are there circumstances in which we might need to remove a larger young tree? And we have we as a stakeholder group hammered out a framework for how we contend with that. What are their circumstances? What's the ecological rationale? And so it's been -- we have been doing a lot of work to move through those issues and create a programmatic framework that will allow us to move much faster in implementation.

Ted Simons: How do you see it as well?

Henry Provencio: Absolutely. As Taylor mentioned, that ecological rationale is exactly the rationale we would incorporate into both implementation strategies, effects analysis, NEPA documents.

Wally Covington: We have been talking mostly about what you do with dense forest areas and we are talking about removing trees. But we don't want to give the impression that that's all we are talking about in the Four Forest Restoration Initiative. We are talking about how to restore seeps and springs and grasslands and meadows. So it's the whole land scape that's important. But a first step in all of this is somehow we have to get on top of these large fires. You know, the fires that when I came here in the middle '70s, a big fire was 400,000 acres and I remember discussions, boy, the fires can't the question much big are than this." Well, they certainly have as the landscapes become more and more choked with these dense forested areas but it's really that whole landscape that we want. So when we talked about a restoration economy, it's not just about utilizing the wood but a work force to restore seeps and springs and grasslands and meadows. I hope that's where we are in 20 years time.

Henry Provencio: Yeah, I think you bring up a great point that 4FRI is so much more than the structure and pattern of trees. It's that removal of roads. The restoration of some of these ephemeral channels. It's aspen restoration, oak restoration. And you know, earlier I mentioned that this isn't to drive or industry isn't necessarily the driver of this but we cannot do this without industry. We have got to have a good industry partners out there in order to make this happen.

Ethan Aumack: And we do have some. I think it's very important to note that we have good industries working the white mountains as part of the white pont stewardship contract. We have seen good work span parts of the lands scape over the last 10 years. In the white mountains, in the area that's burned in the Wallow fire, we have seen good work. The challenge is scaling it up. We used to be planting at scales of 10,000 acres. Now it's scales of 720,000 acres. The scale of issue here.

Ted Simons: Talk about response from lawmakers. State lawmakers, Federal lawmakers, bureaucrats in between. What are you hearing and what do you need to hear?

Taylor McKinnon: What are we hearing? I have heard that lawsuits continue to be a problem, an impediment to forest restoration. I think I heard that from senator McCain and I read something from Congressman Gosar. And it was interesting. Our group, we use lawsuits as part of the kinds of advocacy that we do. So I went back to our database and I asked the question, when was the last time we filed a lawsuit on a timber sale in Northern Arizona? Green timber sale, cutting green trees and it's been more than a decade. So you know, again, we have an old narrative that is misidentifying problems, misidentifying impediments. And we need to have a new narrative to where policymakers can serve the real needs that are preventing us from moving forward.

Ted Simons: But wouldn't the policymaker say, just the threat of the lawsuit is enough to keep businesses to keep whatever restoration needs to be done by way of industry, afraid to even enter the woods?

Taylor McKinnon: That's why it's important that we hammer out an agreement. And up front. And have everybody on board and then move it forward. That's exactly what we are doing.

Ted Simons: Where do we stand on this now? Give us an update, a progress report and what we can look for in the near future so we can know if we are moving forward like we are supposed to be.

Wally Covington: I think where we are right now with the Four Forest Restoration Initiative is that there is agreement about moving forward as a large landscape scale. Not just stopping with this first 700,000 acres, but going on to the remaining 1.7 million acres. That's very encouraging. The fact that the request for proposals is in place, we got commitments from the Washington office of the Forest Service, from the chief himself, and from the secretary of agriculture's office that they are going to decide contracting and be sure this moves forward at a timely pace. So I think I am very encouraged about where we are right now. If someone had told me that we would be where we are today, even five years ago, I would have been very skeptical but now I am very optimistic.

Ted Simons: Optimistic as well?

Ethan Aumack: Extremely. We have all the pieces in place we need. We have support at the highest levels in the Forest Service. We have strong support with our current governor. We have support Congressionally. We have planning at the right scales and as fast as we can. We are planning with expectations regarding quality, right where we need to be. We have got good science, the best science. We are right where we need to be. I wish we were here 10 years ago but we are right where we need to be to respond to the situation.

Ted Simons: There are summer watching the program that will no matter what happens, wish that it moved even faster. Are you confident that we will be able to talk to, bring the same bunch on the program in three, five years and say some real significant work has been done. Look at this latest round of wildfires. Nothing like we saw in the past. Is that realistic?

Henry Provencio: Well, I'm really happy to hear where we are at. I am really happy to know where we are going. However, there will be potential for large fires. The reality is we can't say 30 to 50,000 acres a year. The Wallow Fire is nearly a half million acres. We have got a lot of work ahead of us. We didn't get in this situation overnight. We are not going to get out of it overnight. However, the first, we are taking those first steps to get us there. I think this is absolutely the way to do it.

Taylor McKinnon: It raises the question of, how we can most quickly and efficiently plays restoration treatments on the landscape in a way that impedes large landscape scale style crown fires. So given we have limited time, and limited resources, what's the most efficient way we can go and deploy those treatments? That's one of the questions we have been grappling with. If we can do that, it buys us time.

Ted Simons: All right. Using the signs for when and topography and taking it from there. Gentlemen, great discussion. Thank you for joining us on "Horizon." Coming up on "Horizon," Tuesday, Arizona men are in the bottom half of nationwide ranks for overall health. We will discuss the problem and some possible solutions. And we will show you what's being done to save the most productive cold mine in state history. That's Tuesday at 7:00 on "Horizon." If you would like to watch tonight's program again, see any previous edition of "Horizon" or see what we have in store. Check us out on the web, azpbs.org. 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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