USA — The Wallow fire is a clear setback to the forest restoration efforts in Arizona, and one more reminder that our ponderosa forests are in desperate need of restoration. It is also a clear indication that we are on the right path. This path has been exemplified by the White Mountain Stewardship Contract, which is already credited for helping save Alpine, Nutrioso, Springerville, Eagar and Greer. This is the path of collaboration between agencies, communities, science, conservation and industry.
Factually, the Forest Service, scientists and environmentalists, along with communities and industries, have worked collaboratively in northern Arizona over the last decade in a way that has become an example to the nation. That the Wallow Fire “only” destroyed few structures and was essentially contained away from the communities is a remarkable success, one that must be credited, along with the firefighters, to all who joined forces in collaborative restoration planning after the Rodeo-Chediski. And the credit would not be complete if it did not include the wood businesses that have worked with Future Forest LLC, the stewardship contractor, to create the buffers that made it possible to mostly contain the fire outside of urban areas. We must continue to support this effort.
But the Wallow Fire is also a clear indication that the pioneering work of the White Mountain Stewardship Contract is not enough. Over 35,000 acres have been restored during the last few years, but almost 500,000 acres just burned during the last few weeks. Restoration, to be fully effective, must ramp up to the scale of the fires. That is landscape scale.
This raises the issue of funding. Thinning the million acres collaboratively agreed upon in northern Arizona will cost $1 billion. The Forest Service simply does not have the budget. This is why we at Arizona Forest Restoration Products Inc. (AZFRP) have been advancing the creation of an appropriate scale, small-diameter-tree-specific industry that can act as an economic engine to fund restoration at landscape scale. The communities, scientists and conservationists agree that appropriate scale industry is an indispensable partner in ecosystems restoration, and the involvement of industry as a mechanism to fund restoration treatments is one of the fundamental tenets of the Four Forest Restoration Initiative.
In addition to the existing White Mountain wood businesses, what we need is a new industry, selected through a competitive bidding process, that can profitably use small diameter trees and that can pay for their thinning at landscape scale. The solution we see most likely is to base this industry on engineered wood products and biomass renewable energy. Small diameter trees can be shredded and the strands pressed together as oriented strand boards (OSB), and tree tops, branches and saplings can be pelletized or used to produce electricity. These technologies are proven and their markets are proven. We at AZFRP are confident that we can deploy a $300 million investment as soon as we receive the contracts to implement collaboratively defined ecological thinning over 30,000 acres per year for the next 20 years. This will be a significant acceleration of restoration in northern Arizona, and this will give solid jobs to 600 people.
We as a society must be careful that the temptation of “doing something” in the wake of the Wallow Fire does not lead to decisions that could be too sweeping. While new technologies can accelerate restoration planning, now more than ever is the time for unimpeded collaboration between the agencies and the stakeholders, and for careful science-guided decisions that follow well established and proven analysis processes, replete with checks and balances. This insures that individual and cumulative effects are carefully weighed. As climate changes, the last thing we want is to hurl ourselves from one ecological catastrophe into the next.
As the call for immediate action resonates wide and loud, we urge all involved to ensure that the critical safeguards of ecological restoration are stringently complied with. We call for rigorous science-based analysis. We call for genuine and unrestricted collaboration. We call for aggressive third party monitoring. We call for uncompromising adaptive management. We call for citizen oversight that insures the industry tail does not wag the restoration dog. We call for an appropriate scale industry that is economically viable, that funds landscape scale restoration and sustains hundreds of jobs, but that remains subordinate to the collaborative vision of self-regulating restored forests, and that remains what it should be in a restoration context: an economic enabler of the ecological goal.