Since 2010, high-intensity fires have burned more than 5 million acres of forest lands across the western and central United States.
On the heels of the Wallow Fire, which burned nearly 539,000 acres in four days and was the largest forest fire in state history, representatives of The Nature Conservancy's Arizona chapter are making efforts to protect forest habitats from wildfires before it's too late.
"The images are still in my mind from [the Wallow Fire]," said Patrick Graham, Nature Conservancy state director for Arizona. "I couldn't help thinking that this was an issue The Nature Conservancy could try to solve."
To fight back against intense wildfires, the organization is collaborating with conservation partners, the private sector and government agencies to implement innovative new programs - beginning with the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, the largest forest thinning program in the history of the U.S. Forest Service and one that Nature Conservancy officials say could be used to prevent severe fires in dry forests across the western U.S.
What is forest thinning?
When many of us think about forest thinning, our minds conjure up images of activists chaining themselves to tree trunks to stop the clear-cutting measures that were prevalent in decades past. But that's not what we're talking about here, Nature Conservancy officials say.
"Nobody wants to clear-cut the forests," said Ann Hurley Barker, director of marketing and communications for The Nature Conservancy of Arizona. "But there is a way to thin the forest that is healthy for the habitat, healthy for the forest and protects the forest from catastrophic fire."
So, what good does thinning do? To put it simply, when a fire moves through an overcrowded forest, in which trees are spaced very close together, small diameter trees act as kindling to fuel the blaze and as veritable ladders that allow the flames to move up into the forest canopy, causing widespread devastation that can decimate thousands of acres at a time.
"Fire is a natural part of our forests and an important part of our forests," Graham said. "What we need to do is thin out small trees and leave bigger trees to grow stronger."
Through the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, the organization and its partners plan to thin trees on nearly 300,000 acres in Arizona over the next decade, totalling 1 million acres in all. Through innovative uses of technology, such as in-cab GPS, infrared detectors and real-time tracking using iPads, woodcutters will carry out 40 distinct prescriptions for forest thinning - depending on surrounding landscapes and wildlife habitat.
"The woodcutters of the future aren't clearing the forest, they're creating it. They're really the artists of the future forest," Graham told Earth911. "Every decision they make about what tree to cut and what to leave is something we'll be living with for the next 50 years."
Reusing all that wood
"In the '80s and '90s, forests were managed for timber," Graham said. "Woodcutters went in, took out all the big trees and what was left was burned. What was once piled up and burned needs to be made into wood products."
Through partnerships with local businesses, small diameter trees like those being thinned as part of the new model are reused for loads of useful applications, including furniture and housewares, fencing, cabinetry, pallets and even prefabricated homes and bridges.
Thinned trees are also used to create oriented strand board (OSB), a popular building material that is also used for furniture and other applications. Wood pieces that are too damaged to reuse for these purposes are made into mulch, sawdust and pellets for wood-burning stoves.
"With conservation, you often hear 'use less'; use less water or use less energy," Graham said. "But in this case we want people to use more. Buy these products and support these businesses."
What forest fires mean to you
In addition to destroying thousands of acres of trees and wildlife habitat, high-intensity forest fires also threaten water availability in the western U.S. through erosion, water quality degradation and loss of retention in the water table - making this a problem for greenies and non-greenies alike.
"We all have a stake in the future of our forests, but not everybody recognizes it," Graham said. "So, we help people understand the importance of that, but it's not enough just to create a sense of urgency. We want people to feel an understanding of what needs to be done, and provide them with an opportunity to learn."
To help educate locals and inspire them to take action, The Nature Conservancy launched its Restoring Arizona's Forests art gallery last week at 7056 E. Main Street in Scottsdale, Ariz. The exhibit will run from Jan. 16 to May 15 and features local artists' interpretations of forest health through photography, painting and sculpture.
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