By Tom Kenworthy, a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress.
Whenever there is a big outbreak of wildfires in the West, out come the ignorant to blame “radical environmentalists” and promote a return to excessive levels of industrial logging.
So it was earlier this week when a House panel held a hearing in Phoenix on forest health. Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) was quick to blame “extreme environmental groups” and “the loss of Arizona’s timber industry” for a vicious fire season that has included the largest fire in the state’s history.
Gosar was joined by the incoming president of the Arizona Cattle Growers Association, who likewise blamed “radical environmentalists” for creating a “paralysis” in federal land management agencies that has kept employees from properly managing federal forests.
The reasons that the desert Southwest is having another extreme fire season are complex. They include decades of poor forestry and livestock grazing practices, misguided federal firefighting efforts that have prevented low-intensity fires in Ponderosa pine forests from clearing out underbrush and small trees, and prolonged, exceptional drought caused by climate change.
“What we’re seeing today in Arizona and other parts of the south are what our scientists say are the effects of climate change,” U.S. Forest Service chief Tom Tidwell testified before the U.S. Senate last month.
As the Los Angeles Times reported recently, the timber industry and cattle growers deserve much of the blame:
Experts say the logging of big trees and heavy grazing in the last century helped lay the foundation for the Wallow and the  Rodeo-Chediski conflagrations. Cutting the old ponderosa pines opened the forest floor to dense young growth. Grazing eliminated the grasses that fed the frequent, low-intensity fires to which the pineland vegetation had adapted. Federal policies to quench forest fires as quickly as possible compounded the problem by promoting the buildup of brush and unnaturally thick stands of trees.
Wally Covington, a leading expert on the increasingly dry forests of the Southwest, told the paper, “We need to turn forestry on its head. Leave the old growth alone….focus on harvesting the small-diameter trees. Open the forest to restore more natural conditions and then reintroduce fire.”
That is precisely the approach of a 10-year restoration project on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest in Arizona, exactly where the Wallow and Rodeo-Chediski fires took place. So far the project has thinned some 35,000 acres near communities, reinvigorated wood products companies that use small diameter trees and helped save some of those communities from the Wallow fire.
Environmental groups have been supportive of that White Mountain Stewardship Project. Not even the Arizona-based Center for Biological Diversity – arguably one of the most litigious of environmental groups – has sued or appealed any of the individual thinning projects on the Apache-Sitgreaves in a decade.
Unfortunately, no amount of advanced forestry practices can prevent future epic wildfires in a world with unconstrained greenhouse pollution.