Kirkpatrick: Arizona forests need thinning
I grew up in the White Mountains when the timber industry was booming. Back then, folks in the community – including members of my family – had good jobs at the local mills.
But federal overreach since the 1960s has devastated the timber industry. These misguided policies were job-killers for working families and ultimately led to the horrific wildfires that are ravaging our forests and communities.
Arizona’s forests and public lands are more than just beautiful scenery. For many of us, the trees, lakes, rivers and other outdoor treasures embody our way of life. And they are part of our local economies.
That’s why so many hopes are pinned on the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI), the nation’s largest forest-thinning project. As envisioned, 4FRI will not only allow for thinning overgrown Arizona forests, it will revive the timber industry by opening a sawmill and creating good local jobs.
The U.S. Forest Service’s recent announcement that 4FRI’s initial environmental impact statement has been completed represents a major milestone for the project. The agreement comes after more than five years of collaboration between the Forest Service, local governments, conservationists, environmentalists, private industry and other stakeholders.
And it’s about time. 4FRI has had its share of obstacles, whether with its first private contractor, federal bureaucracy or other forms of foot-dragging. But as yet another wildfire season approaches, now it’s time for action.
Private contractors, with proper oversight, can now move forward to thin roughly 600,000 acres, located mainly on the Kaibab and Coconino national forests. The acres are overcrowded with trees, dead brush and other potential fuel that can elevate a few sparks or a lightning strike into mega-fires – which now occur almost every season and leave damage for years after the last flame is extinguished.
As I’ve driven across northern and eastern Arizona in recent years, the scars of massive wildfires like Rodeo-Chediski, Wallow, Schultz and others are inescapable. They are reminders of why 4FRI is so vital to Congressional District One and why it is a priority of mine.
Just last month, I sat down with Show Low Mayor Daryl Seymore, leaders from Eastern Arizona Counties Organization, leaders from Navajo County and other key stakeholders to discuss the latest 4FRI developments and to plan for the next phase. I want them to know I’ll do everything I can to help move 4FRI forward.
I also met in Flagstaff with Good Earth Power AZ, the second private contractor tasked with putting the plan into action. Because while 4FRI has cleared an important hurdle, the project will ultimately be judged by how many acres of endangered forest are properly thinned. As of today, it’s not nearly enough.
We are at a pivotal moment — one that could see the renewal of our forests, the revival of a thriving timber industry (and the jobs that come with it), and a future with more opportunity and stability in our rural communities. It will require significant work, and I’m committed to seeing it become a reality.
U.S. Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick represents Arizona’s CD 2 in Congress.