Flagstaff, AZ – Over the last decade forests in the Southwest have seen more catastrophic fires, like the one burning right now in Eastern Arizona. Scientists say it's a result of unhealthy forests. A new effort aims to restore the landscape. And if it works in Arizona, it could be used on the 180 million acres of ponderosa pine forests across the west.
Arizona's thick overgrown, dry forest wasn't always so vulnerable. In the 1800s there were only about 20 trees to an acre. Fire meandered through the grass and played its natural role in the ecosystem. Fire ecologist Mary Lata says removal of old growth trees, intensive livestock grazing and fire suppression changed all of that.
"Starting with Smoky Bear and Bambi in the early part of the century we had the European view of fire just being a bad thing so put it out," Lata says. "Starting in the early part of the century slowly people began to realize fire has an important role to play."
Today, firefighting and fire prevention accounts for nearly half of the Forest Service budget. And Lata says up until recently land management agencies could only restore a few acres at a time.
"We have a huge landscape and we're treating little postage stamp size chunks of land which ultimately we go there we treat once and in some cases keep up with it but in most cases we are falling further and further behind."
But now, the Forest Service in Arizona has teamed up with several collaborators to find a cost effective way to return the landscape to its original state and prevent future catastrophic fires. It's called the Four Forest Restoration Initiative. More than 40 unlikely bed fellows -- environmentalists, government agencies and industry -- are working together.
"We have total agreement in the woods," says team leader Henry Provencio. "We fall apart on process so that's a really difficult tightrope to cross."
Provencio works for the Forest Service in Flagstaff. Right now the groups are struggling to develop a framework. How many trees should be cut per acre, for instance. They're trying to do it quickly before more forests are lost to severe wildfires. They have $38 million over 10 years to plan, survey the land for wildlife and artifacts, and mark the trees for cutting. It costs $1,000 to mechanically thin an acre of forest.
This is where industry comes in. A company called Arizona Forest Restoration Products will submit a request to cut down trees and make them into a compound called OSB. It's used to build houses.
"It is one of the very few products that you can make with small diameter trees, a product which has a proven market, which has a proven profitability," says Pascal Berlioux the CEO of Arizona Forest Restoration Products. "Therefore it is one of the few product that has the economic capability of funding restoration on the large scale."
In fact, the scale is huge. We're talking millions of acres that scientists like Wally Covington say need to be restored. Covington is the director of Northern Arizona University's Ecological Restoration Institute.
"From northern Mexico all the way up to British Columbia," Covington says. "So it's a 180 million acre problem throughout the west."
So, Covington says, this project could be a model for the rest of the country. And when the work begins this fall, it will be the largest restoration contract ever awarded by the National Forest Service.