Potential for more catastrophic wildfires in Arizona’s White Mountains will be steadily reduced through a federal forest-thinning effort that started this month.
The area was hit in 2002 by the Rodeo-Chediski fire that destroyed or damaged almost 500 homes and other buildings as it burned across more than 460,000 acres, becoming the largest and costliest wildfire in the state’s history.
Under the White Mountain Stewardship Project, a local private timber partnership is working under contract with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Forest Service to harvest small-diameter trees from as many as 150,000 acres of the 2 million-acre Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests in the next decade.
The work will remove dense vegetation that can fuel the rapid spread and intensity of wildfires, said Mark Rey, head of the agriculture department’s natural resources and environmental programs.
Rey was in Arizona last week to officially kick off the project. "The driving motivation is to leave behind a forest that is fire-resilient,’’ he said.
The project also should produce a more environmentally healthy forest by reversing the effects of about a century of fire suppression that has resulted in dangerously dense forested lands, Rey said.
Thinning such areas will allow re-establishment of the natural cycle of low-intensity fires that kept forest plant and wildlife habitats in ecological balance, he said.
The White Mountain Fort Apache Tribe has had its own forest restoration and timberharvesting project in place for almost two years. The Rodeo-Chediski fire scorched about 275,000 acres on the reservation.
Forest health in the White Mountains "is important to the Valley, and not just to the people who have summer homes there,’’ said Patrick Graham, director of the Nature Conservancy’s Arizona operations.
The region spawns some major river systems in the state and is the starting point of the watershed system for much of the Valley.
"The water that comes from there feeds our reservoirs. . . . The amount and quality of that water is related to the conditions of the forests,’’ Graham said.
Nature Conservancy leaders will participate in a group set up by the Forest Service to monitor the White Mountain Stewardship Project in the interest of local communities.
Such oversight eases the anxieties of environmental organizations that are skeptical about the federal government’s approaches to forest management, said Erik Ryberg, the Southwest forests advocate for the Center for Biology Diversity.
"Our concerns are about (government programs) that can turn into major industrial timber operations in interior forests that are disguised as fire protection for local communities,’’ Ryberg said.
The White Mountains project doesn’t raise such fears, he said.
"It looks to us like it will accomplish what we’ve long said needs to be accomplished. . . . We’ve always supported thinning to protect communities,’’ Ryberg said.
Timber harvesting is to be done on about 15,000 acres a year, so most overgrown areas won’t be thinned for at least several years. And it doesn’t included thinning the northern reaches of the Tonto National Forest, where the Rodeo-Chediski fire burned more than 10,000 acres..
By working with a private business, the stewardship program will save millions in tax revenue that would otherwise go for forest thinning, Rey said.
Technological advances have made harvesting of small trees more economically viable, he said.