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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Fire Plan

Air Date: Week of

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TOOMEY: When Western governors gather at their upcoming annual meeting in Denver, finding a way to avoid another round of catastrophic wildfires will be high on their agenda. Uncontrolled blazes scorched more than six and a half million acres of western land last year. Recently, in Tempe, Arizona, state, regional, and federal experts met to lay out their plan for the next decade. And, for the first time, they're finding common ground in the battle against wildfire. From KJZZ in Phoenix, Mark Moran reports.

MORAN: If nothing else, the devastating fire in Los Alamos, New Mexico, last year heightened the lack of coordination between state and federal agencies. As a result, President Clinton appropriated an additional $1.6 billion to hire more firefighters and buy more firefighting equipment. He also gave local governments decision-making power over how best to use the money. So, for the first time, a plan to battle wildfires and restore the nation's forests has the resources to back it up. Arizona's fire management director Kirk Rodebaugh says the money will be put to work right away.

RODEBAUGH: You'll see that in the woods this summer. There will be more chainsaws running and more trees coming down and more wood being removed from the woods than there have been in prior years.

MORAN: The ten-year plan, which has been in the design stage for several months, seeks to do two things: reduce the threat of wildfire for people who live on the edge of the forest, by reminding them to remove fuel sources, such as pine needles, small trees, and fuel storage tanks. The second part of the plan seeks the long-term goal of preserving and restoring the nation's old growth forests and wild lands. New Mexico state forester Toby Martinez says the approach is different in the wild lands, where the focus is not so much on people but on trying to repair an ecological imbalance that has been a century in the making.

MARTINEZ: These lands are not in balance. We have a very unnatural situation. Too many trees, small trees. Some of those trees are five inches in diameter and they're 100 years old, you know.

MORAN: Last year that imbalance erupted in flames when a prescribed burn near Los Alamos, New Mexico, a fire set intentionally by federal officials, blew out of control and quickly began consuming trees and threatening homes. But Toby Martinez says it's not productive to blame, especially now when state and federal officials are making an effort to cooperate.

MARTINEZ: We can always look back and Monday morning quarterback and say "Well, we could have done this and we could have done that." But in reality, there are a lot of factors that, you know, are unpredictable. And I think prescribed fire is certainly a tool we need to continue to use in the future.

MORAN: Along with prescribed fires, the ten-year plan also calls for reducing the number of smaller, fire-prone trees, both in fire-prone residential areas and in the wild lands. But there's a fine line between thinning and logging. Even environmentalists who'd opposed thinning now agree that, to some degree, it will be necessary. Brad Ack is with the Grand Canyon Trust, a coalition of sixteen environmental groups formed to restore forest ecosystems.

ACK: Thinning has become the flashpoint for the fight over forest ecosystem restoration, because many people believe that what you have here is logging in sheep's clothing. That what we're really all about is trying to get out commercial timber. And that is just a fallacy.

MORAN: Despite a large degree of cooperation between all sides in this debate, there's one sticking point over which there seems to be no agreement: the size of the tree. Brad Shulke with the Southwest Forest Alliance says it's okay to clear away underbrush in small, fire-prone trees, but worries that the ten-year plan will mean logging big trees a foot and a half in diameter from the wild lands. Shulke says saving the big trees is the most important element in any plan to restore old growth forests.

SHULKE: It's the small trees that really create the fire risk problem. And a vast majority of the trees in the forest are smaller than 12 inches, in most cases smaller than nine inches. So, if there is an attempt through this ten-year plan to cut large trees, then yeah, we're definitely going to oppose it vigorously.

MORAN: The ten-year plan, as much as anything say experts involved in writing it, is about money. While the Clinton administration appropriated more than a billion and a half dollars for more fire protection in the years to come, there is no guarantee that the next administration will do the same. Arizona state forester Mike Anable says the plan needs a consistent source of funding to train and equip firefighters in the region.

ANABLE: We're hoping that the federal share of those programs will increase, and we'll be able to direct more money to local governments, to rural fire departments, to gear up for what really will be a campaign over the next ten years in terms of fire and forest restoration.

MORAN: Ecologically speaking, Todd Shulke is convinced that a decade is not nearly long enough.

SHULKE: There's a lot more questions, a lot more controversy over the issues, and I think it's sort of crazy to think we can resolve those problems in ten years.

MORAN: In the short term, fire officials have been encouraged by rain and snow in the Southwest's forests in recent weeks. But, to a large degree, the severity of the next wildfire season will depend on the weather staying damp through the spring. For Living on Earth, I'm Mark Moran.



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