Patrick Graham, the Conservancy's Arizona state director, tells a Congressional committee about Arizona's overgrown forest, and the Conservancy's work to address the problem.
Chairman Bishop, ranking member Grijalva and members of the committee, thank you for the opportunity to submit written testimony. My name is Patrick Graham and I am the state director for The Nature Conservancy in Arizona. When tragedy struck the afternoon of June 30 resulting in the loss of 19 elite wildland fire fighters, we were stunned. Our thoughts continue to be with the families of the fallen firefighters lost protecting people, property and lands we cherish.
We are all too familiar with the impact of fire in Arizona. While fire has always played an important role in maintaining our forests, today’s fires are more devastating in their scale and intensity. We have lost over one quarter of our Ponderosa pine forests in a decade and millions of acres remain at risk. There is no one solution or one responsible party. It requires many tools, approaches, programs, and partnerships. Like a campfire left unattended, it will continue to leave a trail of devastation and the costs will be tremendous to our water supplies, communities, economy and wildlife habitat.
We appreciate the leadership of our delegation—in particular, Representatives Gosar and Kirkpatrick, whose districts have borne the brunt of the fires this past decade. They continue to champion the tools and resources needed to make a difference. Arizona is in a unique position to demonstrate the changes needed to accelerate forest thinning and reduce fuel loads, both essential to protect communities and healthy water supplies. We need to work together to innovate and accelerate action or continue to spend hundreds of millions of dollars fighting fires, restoring the damage done, and helping communities recover from the needless loss of property and life. Taking action to reduce fuel loads will improve the health of our forests and begin to break the unsustainable cycle of reacting to large fires.
The circumstances of the Yarnell fire illustrate there is no single action or response to the range of conditions that exist. A fire in chaparral burns hot and is hard to control. When living close to these conditions the best action is to create a defensible space that provides a chance to slow or stop a fire. Often, mixed land ownerships mean no one person or agency is responsible. It takes a partnership by federal and state agencies, communities and homeowners. The Firewise Community Program plays an important role. We also support coalition efforts, such as the fire-adapted communities (fireadapted.org) to help educate individuals and communities on their roles at reducing fire risk. Creating additional incentives to participate in these community efforts is important because these types of forests seldom have enough economic value to attract private investment, thus shifting the costs to landowners and governments.
Pine forests present an entirely different opportunity. Here, partnerships take on a different role in the West since most of the forests are on public lands. You are certainly familiar with the challenges of land management on these lands. It surprises many to learn the nation's largest contiguous Ponderosa forest stretches from Northern Arizona to central New Mexico. Here we have launched the nation's first and two largest forest stewardship contracts. The most recent is referred to as the Four Forest initiative. A total of 900,000 acres will be offered in contracts to attract private investment by wood products businesses; the first contract for 300,000 acres is currently underway.
Three elements were critical to get this project off the ground. 1) Creation of the federal stewardship contracting authority allowed for ten-year contracts to provide the assured wood supply necessary to attract business investment. 2) Funding the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program (CFLRP) is providing financial support essential for completion of the large-scale NEPA analysis over 900,000 acres and 3) flexibility in the NEPA process.
Without these federal actions and more, the effort would have stalled. It is anticipated these public investments will result in well over $250 million in private investments, profits, and returns.
There also needs to be a sense of urgency. During the planning process of the Four Forest analysis, over 500,000 acres in eastern Arizona were lost to the Wallow fire at a cost of over $190 million, not including the loss of property, impacts to local economies and water supplies. We understand the dilemma facing Congress and the federal agencies. However, until we invest enough in reducing fuel loads, we will be forced to pay the heavy price of fighting fires and the los of forests and lives.
In some situations the cost of reducing fuel loads exceeds the economic return yet the risk of doing nothing is very high. Cragin Reservoir is such a site. It has higher costs of treatments. Steep, forested slopes surround the reservoir. When they burn mudflows will fill the reservoir. The town of Payson is constructing a pipeline over many miles to utilize the water for their drinking supply. Such situations will require investments to close the financial gap to where wood products businesses can justify harvesting the wood.
Investments alone will not solve the problem. There needs to partnerships and continued innovation and evolution of policies, processes, and approaches. Traditional methods are too costly and slow to match today’s needs. To reduce fuel loads the focus is on harvesting lower value, smaller diameter wood. Today’s operators must move quickly and efficiently to stay in business and compete in a world marketplace. In addition to proposed administrative changes in the planning rule and NEPA, we need to redesign how monitoring is conducted and how results can be used to continually improve business practices.
Effective monitoring is essential in maintaining the public support needed to act. The Four Forest Initiative has developed a set of prescriptions for woodcutters to follow under different circumstances. These can be complex and the pressure is on operators to decide quickly which tree to cut and which to leave. The current system of monitoring is costly, slow and ineffective. We are working to redesign this system.
The Conservancy in Arizona is investing our resources and working with woodcutters to bring new technology to redesign the monitoring process. Using tablet computers and GPS units mounted in the feller-bunchers used to cut trees, we are providing technology that helps the operator be more effective while providing more timely and accurate data for monitoring. This information can then be conveyed more rapidly to decision makers and the public to maintain public confidence in these large-scale operations. This allows treatments to occur at a faster pace and larger scale.
Congress has an important role in solving these problems. Reauthorizing stewardship contracting, funding CFLRP, providing adequate funding for fuels reduction, and supporting innovation and administrative changes in the planning rules and NEPA to create the flexibility to rapidly accelerate the pace and scale of forest thinning and fuel reduction.