After years of political fighting that stalled urgently needed thinning operations in Arizona's dry, overgrown forests, progress finally is being made to lessen the likelihood of devastating wildfires.
Mark Rey, head of the U.S. Agriculture Department's natural resources and environmental programs, was in Arizona last week to officially kick off a thinning project on a large expanse of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest.
As the Tribune's Joe Kullman reported on Monday, the White Mountain Stewardship Project is being carried out by a private timber partnership under the watchful eyes of the Forest Service and a consortium of environmental groups led by the Nature Conservancy's Arizona operation.
The Stewardship Project strikes a delicate balance advocated for several years by members of Arizona's congressional delegation and the Tribune. Overgrown forests will be thinned of undergrowth and small-diameter trees, with the carefully monitored work done by timber companies to minimize expense to taxpayers.
The thinning will be concentrated near communities to lessen the likelihood of devastating loss of structures in the event of forest fires.
The project isn't perfect, but it's an excellent compromise that represents a good start to a forest-management overhaul that will take several more years to complete — and perhaps decades to fully implement.
Advocates of serious reforms, led by U.S. Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., favor replacing politically driven restrictions on forest management with scientifically driven guidelines. Once thinning has been completed around communities within forests, carefully monitored timber harvesting should be extended deeper into the state's forests so that devastating wildfires have less chance of starting and spreading.
Some environmental groups still insist on an arbitrary diameter cap on trees that can be harvested and confining thinning to forested areas near communities. They're also suspicious of involving private timber companies in the harvesting.
Science-based forestry would move us beyond such strictures toward programs that would address forest health holistically and in a fiscally sustainable manner. The White Mountain Stewardship Project is a welcome, if overdue, first step.