Biden administration announces plan to step up fight against ‘megafires’

The federal government is committing billions of dollars to a 10-year wildfire mitigation strategy that will include a boost to programs to thin forests and restore struggling watersheds in Arizona, the secretary announced Tuesday. American for Agriculture, Tom Vilsack, in Phoenix.

The money, nearly $3 billion set aside in the bipartisan federal infrastructure bill last year, will fund provisions of a new Coherent national forest fire management strategy for the first five years. This will allow the agency to massively expand its current processing from about 2 million acres per year to about 5 million acres per year, Vilsack said.

Drought, forest pests, climate change and past fire suppression have all conspired to create a megafire landscape in the West, Vilsack and others said during the announcement at the Desert Botanical Garden.

“We needed a boost,” he said.

Initially, the Forest Service will direct funds this year to projects its scientists have deemed critical, including the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) in Arizona’s Ponderosa Pine Reach. The agency then plans to engage local communities to help prioritize other treatment areas, beginning with roundtables led by the National Forest Foundation in February.

In the case of 4FRI, a partnership led by the Forest Service that has struggled to progress toward an annual goal of 50,000 acres of thinning in northern Arizona, the strategy will allocate $54 million per year starting this year. That will include $10 million for road construction and maintenance, a cost that has slowed industry partners who might otherwise have harvested more land, regional forester Michiko Martin said.

Vilsack, who is reprising the role he held under then-President Barack Obama, said he was irritated — “hot,” in his words — to return to power and find that 4FRI still had trouble. struggling to accelerate and protect Arizona’s forests and watersheds. The new strategy immediately targets what he called the highest priority threats in Arizona’s pine tracts above the Mogollon Rim, including Bill Williams Mountain near Williams, the Flagstaff watershed and the Cragin Reservoir which supplies water to Payson and the Phoenix area.

U.S. Representative Tom O’Halleran, D-Arizona, told The Arizona Republic that the new strategy allows for a move to 4FRI in areas that are too expensive for industry to connect economically. Bill Williams Mountain, for example, poses a flood threat to Williams if a monsoon storm follows a fire clearing it, but is too steep to record without the aid of helicopters. The new funds should help subsidize this work.

“I feel good about what’s to come with 4FRI,” O’Halleran said.

Federal spending on forest roads could help companies trying to build industry that can complete 4FRI work, said Ted Dergousoff, CEO of 4FRI contractor NewLife Forest Restoration. “We are very encouraged,” he said.

Sen. Mark Kelly, D-Arizona, said protecting the forests that provide much of the state’s water is a critical infrastructure expense that will become more important over time. He noted that since the turn of the 21st century, two fires alone — Rodeo-Chediski and Wallow — have burned a previously unimaginable million acres in Arizona.

“The truth is that drought and climate change will only make this crisis worse,” Kelly said.

“I’m not sure we’re growing fast enough”

The strategy approaches wildfires from a landscape or “hearth” perspective, said U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore. This means analyzing threats in large areas of 100,000 acres to 250,000 acres in which individual fires can burn. The agency prioritized pools of fire in the Southwest, Pacific Northwest, Sierra Nevada and Colorado Front Range.

“We will constantly evaluate additional projects,” he said.

The strategy also provides for the creation of a maintenance plan for the treated areas at the end of the ten-year programme.

Both Moore and Vilsack pointed out that partnerships with state and local organizations should stretch the dollars.

This all sounds eerily familiar to wildfire expert and author Stephen Pyne, a professor emeritus at Arizona State University’s School of Life Sciences. In 2000, the Clinton administration passed a national fire plan intended to swamp the growing wildfire risk with money. As climate change and continued wilderness building continued to fuel the fires that scorched communities, the Office of Management and Budget determined that it had failed and funding ended.

Now, said Pyne, “We’re looking at an effort probably 10 times greater than what we thought was adequate in 2000, and I’m not sure it’s adequate in 2022 because things are changing on a much larger scale.

“I’m not sure we’re growing fast enough.”

Money and the thinning of forests are not his only prescriptions. The communities burning now are increasingly gentrified urban and peri-urban enclaves. Hardening these communities against wildfires within their borders is at least as important as reducing forest fuels around them, he said. Building and fire codes must create defensible space, he said, or more cities will burn and a new assessment could once again determine the government is wasting its money.

Still, enforcing smarter construction and flame-retardant landscapes has proven politically difficult, even in parts of California that have suffered catastrophic losses, he said.

“Will people be ready to adapt their communities to the fact that the fire is going to be there?” Pyne said. “It’s not going to go away. It gets worse.”

Beyond community protection, Pyne agreed that watershed protection and other ecological restorations are needed.

Small low value trees are targeted

In this regard, Salt River Project is eager to put the new funds to use in the protection of the Cragin Reservoir watershed. Last week, the water and electric utility signed an agreement with the Forest Service and the state to share the cost of thinning some 3,000 acres a year for 10 years.

The reservoir is an important water source for Payson, but water from the landscape also flows to Metro Phoenix. Thinning is expected to cost $2,000 more per acre than the industry could recoup from timber, said SRP forest management chief Elvy Barton.

“It’s mostly small, low-value trees,” said David Tenney, director of the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management. Like SRP, he said, the state is eager to partner with the Forest Service to protect water from sedimentation or supply problems associated with massive fires.

Asked about opportunities to generate industry in Arizona, Vilsack pointed to the need for biomass-based aviation fuel that can help fight climate change. It’s an idea that a former 4FRI entrepreneur explored years ago, although this industry has not yet emerged.

Environmental organizations had mixed reactions to the announcement. WildEarth Guardians released a statement saying the government is ‘continuing to bark the wrong tree’ as it seeks to cut down more land when it should be focusing on clearing 100-200ft areas around homes. But Grand Canyon Trust executive director Ethan Aumack, who has long worked to shape the 4FRI program, said the federal investment is “a great start, and we’re optimistic about the work that will be done over the next five years”.

Decades from now, people will remember that commitment as the time the United States took up the challenge of out-of-control fires and said “no more,” said Martin, the regional forester.

“It really is a great moment for the country,” she said.

Brandon Loomis covers environmental and climate issues for The Arizona Republic and azcentral.com. Join it at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @brandonloomis.

Environmental coverage on azcentral.com and in the Arizona Republic is supported by a grant from the Nina Mason Pulliam Charitable Trust. Follow The Republic’s environmental reporting team at environment.azcentral.com and @azcenvironment at Facebook, Twitter and instagram.

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