Thu, April 02

Controlled burns essential part of forest management

The initial reaction was that it was a forest fire quickly coming our way. Then it was a controlled burn that was now out of control.

The reality of it all is that it was exactly what Prescott National Forest officials told us it would be before the fact: A controlled burn.

It was so "controlled" that 90 percent of the targeted 5,000-acre burn area was completed in one day. We were never in danger. We were not in jeopardy of losing our forest. Sure, the smoky skies are aggravating, and they do make life unpleasant for people with respiratory difficulties.

But, such action by the forest service is essential to the health of our forests, especially in light of the pine bark beetle epidemic plaguing Arizona forests.

We received a huge wake-up call last year with the Rodeo-Chedeski Fire that consumed 465,000 acres of drought-plagued forest. Professional management of the forest had been neglected because of short-sighted environmental policies. It's a problem professional Forest Service land managers had complained about for decades. Their hands were tied in doing this crucial job, however, because of the strong influence environmental groups held over Washington lawmakers. If it wasn't the Mexican spotted owl that kept the forests from being properly managed, it was some other ridiculous red herring that environmental groups held over the heads of lawmakers.

Now, the problem has been exasperated because of the pesky pine bark beetle. A California entomologist who has studied bark beetles for nearly a half-century says the epidemic now sweeping the Southwest may be the worst in U.S. history. Over-stocked forests and a long-term drought have helped create the epidemic.

Last August, Forest Service officials conducting an aerial survey estimated the beetles had killed 2 million to 6 million ponderosa pine trees on 500,000 acres in Arizona. In a sample re-flight in October, that estimate already had doubled in acres and the number of dead trees had increased to as many as 36 million.

It's made the water-starved forest even more susceptible to wild fire. Before wildland fire suppression became the No. 1 priority for forest officials in the early 1900s, Mother Nature had its own way of keeping the forest's health in check with averages of 60 to 80 trees per acre. Today in our own Prescott National Forest, there are areas with are as many of 800 ponderosa pines in a single acre. It was the ultimate all-you-can-eat buffet for pine bark beetles.

That's why it has become essential in Arizona that professional land managers be allowed to manage the forest. It's why we need to put up with the aggravation of smoky skies now and then for the long-term health and safety of the forests.

This responsibility has been neglected in Arizona for far too long. With both the Rodeo-Chedeski Fire and the pine bark beetle epidemic, we've paid the price for such neglect.

Let's hope the lesson learned is that we need to allow such thinning and controlled burning of forest lands.

Otherwise, Mother Nature will do it for us.

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