Our view: Forest clearing necessary to prevent fires

Forest fires rage out of control this time each year, as Arizona reminds us, because we manage our federal forests poorly. Scientists say we’ve created the “monster fire” era.

It has become so common the public is almost numb to it. A fire gets out of control, luxury homes burn, and when it’s over the country is left with scorched earth that cannot recover for generations. New flooding danger emerges in areas that once had vegetation to consume moisture.

Our forests have become disasters waiting to happen and our forestry policy is one of disaster management.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

The U.S. Forest Service goes about forest management with an every-tree-is-sacred mantra that has led to an unnatural obsession with fire suppression rather than tree and fuel maintenance.

Without human interference, fires are a natural part of forest survival. Lightning ignites fires, which burn dead limbs and tree needles that have fallen to the ground. The fires turn the fuel into nutrients that nourish the trees. When this process is suppressed, and trees are not thinned and fuel is not cleared from the ground, fuel accumulates for decades. Forests grow unnaturally thick, interfering with the hunting practices of some raptors and other wildlife. The abundance of fuel makes fires so hot that most trees burn from top to bottom. The intense heat of the fire destroys nutrients, greatly delaying a forest’s rebirth.

“It has been over a decade since the last timber mills closed in Arizona’s mountains, and in that time under the management of the United States Forest Service (USFS) over 1,700 square miles of the state’s forests have burned,” wrote Arizona state Rep. Brenda Barton, a Republican, in a recent press release.

Barton complains that people in Arizona’s mountain communities have implored federal forest officials to adopt a more proactive approach to forest management: “One that allows for an aggressive program to clean and clear the forest floor. It’s here in what is called the ‘fire load’ that otherwise healthy lightning strike fires become catastrophic and devastate hundreds of thousands of acres in a relatively short period of time.”

She continued: “In contrast, Sweden, arguably one of the most progressive environmental nations in Europe has in the past six years turned away from the U.S. practice of au natural forests and has aggressively begun a forest management program which grooms and utilizes the timber while cleaning the forest floor.”

Germany has begun a similar program, and England’s enviable and attractive forests are managed with a commitment to thinning of trees and clearing of fuel.

Before wildfires ripped through Arizona this year, Barton toured forests managed by the Apache tribe and the state of Arizona. Those forests were “properly cleaned and cleared.” The federal forests were “deplorable.”

Study after study tells us that what Barton argues is true.

President Obama and Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, lead the way in dramatically changing our country’s management of forests. Let’s start nurturing forests with more aggressive thinning and clearing, so we can waste less time and money on crisis control.