Arizona’s often portrayed as desert, with a few mesas, in popular imagination. Very few times do people who are not from the state recognize that Arizona is also home to grasslands, forests, and much, much more. It is a uniquely biodiverse region.
The diverse climates one can pass through while traversing the Grand Canyon State include dense forests, dry deserts, picturesque grasslands, and more. Such diversity is something that ecology experts and forestry professionals have considered not only a testament to biodiversity and Arizona’s wealth of natural resources, but immensely important to the entirety of Arizona’s ecosystem.
Not just that, but experts have remarked that the diversity of trees found within the state’s lush forests is something of an anomaly.
The Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management (AZDFFM) is tasked with “safeguard[ing] the health, safety and economic welfare of the public by protecting, conserving and enhancing Arizona’s water supplies in a bold, thoughtful and innovative manner”, and they are doing a lot to preserve the state’s beautiful forests and protect the forests of Arizona from environmental threats.
All in all, the AZDFFM has three primary goals:
- Conserve working forests landscapes
- Protect forests from threats
- Enhance public benefits from trees and forests
Sounds pretty simple and straightforward. Although, as a result of the Farm Bill, the AZDFFM is required to regularly re-evaluate the way they approach forest and fire management. The Farm Bill was passed by Congress in 2018 and signed by President Donald Trump, with varied provisions ranging from conservation to nutrition programs.
The Farm Bill’s requirement of the AZDFFM to reevaluate their forest and fire management techniques allows the department to constantly be looking for new and improved ways to keep Arizona’s forests, firefighters, and communities safe. And there are many ways that they go about accomplishing those goals they set out. Some of these avenues of action include:
- The AZDFFM’s approach to address disease and insect control in our forests in a uniquely beneficial manner, but with tremendous respect to traditional and cultural values.
- Working alongside the Federal Government and the Bureau of Indian Affairs, the AZDFFM provides contracts and job opportunities to the Tribes in Arizona to clear dead trees, aid in prescribed fires, and much more.
- One of the AZDFFM’s biggest priorities is preserving forests not only to protect the ecosystem, but also to support the state’s crucial timber industries. The AZDFFM actually partners with over 28 agencies across Arizona to develop strategies that both support forest preservation and private industry.
While the AZDFFM works tirelessly on these kinds of projects, their missions cannot be achieved in a vacuum, especially considering the current drought battering the state.
Drought and fire
Arizona went from only 13% of the state experiencing some kind of drought in 2020 to 99% of the state experiencing some form of drought today. 55% is considered to be “exceptional drought” levels. This is an even more daunting statistic when one also considers the growing timber shortage plaguing Arizona industry.
9 out of 10 forest fires in Arizona are started by humans. By staying updated on fire restrictions, and recognizing the magnitude of environmental damage that Arizona’s forests are facing, forestry experts argue that Arizonans can help keep Arizona from becoming another example of poor forestry management.
Simple things like ensuring chains are not being dragged on the road and causing sparks; stomping out a campfire with dirt (to prevent rogue embers from scattering) can make all the difference.
The California experience
Arizona’s nextdoor neighbor, California, has experienced the consequences of poor forest management, argues Matthew D. Hurteau, an associate professor of biology and director of the Earth Systems Ecology Lab at the University of New Mexico. “After all, the three things you need for fire are oxygen, heat and fuel — and poor management means there’s more fuel to burn,” he says in a 2020 editorial piece for The Washington Post.
The approach to forest conservation and wildfire prevention will vary by region and by circumstance, which makes AZFFD’s innovative strategy all the more important: “If we restore variation in tree density and reduce surface fuel, we can reduce the chance that dry forests burn in raging crown fires of the sort we’re seeing this year. In some places, this means mechanically thinning the forest… In other places, the work can be done with fire: intentionally igniting the forest when weather and fuel conditions are conducive to controlled burns through the understory.”
Preventing destructive wildfires is not some lecture on climate change or the Green New Deal. It’s a conversation about how preserving Arizona forests and helping prevent wildfires is necessary for keeping wildlife populations healthy, bolstering the state’s timber industries and economies in Northern Arizona, and keeping firefighters safe.
Robert Bean is the northern Arizona correspondent for the Western Tribune.