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Climate Resilience Demands Healthy Forests

November 21, 2023 10:30 AM | Anonymous

In Arizona, we used to brace for fire season, but those days are long gone as we now must be on high alert most of the year, and we are experiencing bigger and more intense fires as we try to adjust to the changing climate.

Our forests, which have always held a special place in the hearts of hunters like me, are facing an unprecedented vulnerability in this new reality.

In Arizona we are blessed with more than 12 million acres of national forest land which belongs to all of us. They provide us with a trove of benefits including clean drinking water, a wide variety of wildlife habitats, opportunities for outdoor recreation, and relief from our heavily urbanized cities. They also provide economic benefits and jobs, including fueling the outdoor recreation industry which has become increasingly important. especially in some of our rural areas.

These forests are increasingly at risk as each year we see more and more acreage impacted by high intensity wildfires. We are in a multi-decade drought, punctuated by occasional wet winters and/or summers, but the net effect is to have our forests drier for much longer periods.  As sportsmen we know that volunteers and the Arizona Game & Fish Department haul hundreds of thousands of gallons of water to remote wildlife water catchments which used to be filled regularly by rain and snowmelt. Our forests have the same long periods between moisture and have to be healthy enough to withstand these long dry periods.

Now, more than ever, we need to manage our forests actively to make them able to withstand the conditions we are facing. We need to use the best available science and be willing to adapt as we learn more or as the conditions continue to change. We also need to consider local knowledge – from Tribes, early settlers, long term observers. And we need to recognize that after major disturbances, like high intensity fires, we may not be able to restore them to their previous state but must gaze ahead and adopt proactive measures to ensure they continue to offer essential habitats for all the game we pursue and non-game animals alike.

Our forests need to include all ages of the trees, as well as a diversity of grasses, wildflowers, and shrubs underneath. In the Southwest, it takes much longer to grow trees to maturity and what we call old-growth than in many other regions of the country. In the past, our discussions about “protecting” old forests often leaned towards a hands-off approach, which still holds in some cases, e.g., legislated wilderness, However, in many others, proactive management is needed if we want them to persist in the face of our changing climate.

The Forest Service, as well as local leaders, realize the magnitude of the situation and its urgency.  Programs have been initiated, but far more is needed. The recent Infrastructure Act and the Inflation Reduction Act included multi-year funding for the Forest Service and other land management agencies to accelerate preventive actions. In spite of the infusion of large amounts of money, the Forest Service does not have the staff to do it alone. To support this work, a number of partnerships have developed. For example, in the Flagstaff area The Nature Conservancy is a collaborator. In the C.C. Cragin (Blue Ridge) reservoir watershed within the Coconino National Forest, a major cooperative effort to reduce wildfire risk includes the Salt River Project, Town of Payson, and Bureau of Reclamation. The Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management is a major participant in the implementation.

As the Forest Service and their partners work toward increasing forest health there are inconveniences – smoke from prescribed and managed fires, areas temporarily closed due to ongoing logging or other treatments or fires in progress. Things are not always pretty right after treatments. The ground is blackened until succeeding rains bring back green grass or other vegetation. Occasional groups of trees can be seen where the fire got too hot and they will not survive but will provide some localized diversity.

We need a balanced, community-driven nationwide framework to ensure that our national forests are managed in a way that promotes climate resilience, enhances biodiversity, reduces the risk of mega-wildfires, and safeguards our precious, clean water sources. I hope my fellow sportsmen and women in Arizona will stand with me in supporting the U.S. Forest Service and others’ efforts to embrace climate-smart management policies, securing the health and vitality of our state's national forests for generations to come.

Loyd Barnett is a forester and hydrologist retired from the U.S. Forest Service and a board member of the Arizona Wildlife Federation. For the last 50 years he has had the privilege of living in northern Arizona and enjoys hunting, hiking, camping, and cutting firewood on the national forests.

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PO Box 1182,  Mesa, AZ 85211
(480) 702-1365


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