In 1988, the nation’s ecological crown jewel, Yellowstone National Park, nearly burned to the ground. More than a third of the park, roughly 1.2 million acres burned.
The devastating fire finally awakened the nation to the crisis in our national forests that forest scientists had been warning us about for years – the forests had too many trees.
A century of fire suppression sought by loggers, ranchers and conservationists had turned our national forests into crackling tinder boxes choked with trees.
The forests needed thinning. After nearly losing Yellowstone, that seemed like good national policy.
And we promptly set about doing nothing.
Then came 2000-2004, when the Western United States nearly went up in flames. Roughly 28 million acres of wildlands (about the size of Kentucky) burned in those four years, including more than 21 million acres of forest.
Arizona, Colorado, Oregon, Alaska, and New Mexico all experienced the largest most devastating fires in their modern histories. Among them were the 500,000-acre Biscuit fire in Oregon, the 490,000-acre Rodeo-Chediski fire in Arizona and the 1.7 million-acre Taylor Complex fire in Alaska.
The 2002 fire season prompted President George W. Bush to propose and Congress to pass in 2003 the Healthy Forests Initiative, which would spend $750 million over 20 years thinning about 20 million acres of the nation’s forests with the highest fire danger.
Few forests have been thinned. Congress didn’t fund it. Loggers hated it and deemed it commercially unworkable. Environmentalists hated it and dubbed it “No tree left behind,” arguing that it relied too heavily on logging.
Between 2003 and 2009, more than 170 lawsuits were filed nationally to prevent or change forest-thinning plans. Among those who wanted a say in how the forests were thinned and which forests were thinned were environmentalists, loggers, ranchers, cities, landowners and Native American tribes. As a result, only about 1 million acres have been thinned.
In Arizona, more than 1 million acres of ponderosa pine forest were identified in need of thinning but only a few thousand acres, mostly around Flagstaff, have been thinned as the thinning plan spent most of its time in U.S. District Court.
Finally in 2009, the Forest Service, loggers, ranchers and environmentalists reached an accord and agreed on a plan.
They drew up a map that stretched from Flagstaff to Springerville along the Mogollon Rim. On the western edge the map looked like a Target store sign with Flagstaff in the middle. In the center of the map along the Rim it looked like a snake that had swallowed a rabbit, with a big bulge in the middle.
But on the far eastern part of the map it was nice, neat rectangle. Starting in Springerville and heading south the rectangle straddled U.S. Route 191 with the boundary about 10 miles on either side of the highway. The box stretched to a few miles south of Hannagan Meadow.
Inside the rectangle were a collection of 9,000-foot peaks, some of the state’s largest stands of alpine trees, the state’s biggest herds of elk, and high-mountain lakes and streams filled with trout. And it was packed with trees.
Well, not anymore.
See, that rectangle also encompasses the entirety of the Wallow fire, which has charred more than 400,000 acres to date and is still going strong.
The Forest Service and the others who reached that historic accord two years ago can scratch that rectangle off the thinning map. That section is quite thin, now.
In the six years since the passage of HFI, another 51 million acres of wildlands (roughly the size of Kansas) have burned, including about 42 million acres of forest.
At this rate, what with all the bickering and lawsuits and lack of funding, we’ll have no forests left to thin in 20 years.
The final, brutal irony of these fires is the cost to put them out. Of the $750 million identified for HFI, about 10 percent was to be spent in Arizona.
So far, the estimated cost to put out the Wallow, Horeshoe 2 fire and Murphy fires, three of the largest fires in modern Arizona history that have consumed about 600,000 acres of forest land, is about $60 million and climbing, or nearly the total HFI would have spent in Arizona between 2004 and 2024, assuming Congress had funded it.
Perhaps if we’d spent $60 million thinning forests the past six years, the state’s forests would be full of people enjoying the cool mountain summers instead of full of fire fighters desperately trying to save them.