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Group Invents New Way to Save Forests, Prevent Megafires

Crews are thinning trees in Chimney Springs, in the Kaibab National Forest near Flagstaff. (Steve Horner)
Crews are thinning trees in Chimney Springs, in the Kaibab National Forest near Flagstaff. (Steve Horner)
November 6, 2017

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — The West has millions of acres of forested lands choked with small trees that could fuel the next massive wildfire. But now Arizona's getting some help from an innovative new program.

The Future Forests program aims to make clearing extra logs more cost-effective. Pat Graham, state director of the Arizona chapter of The Nature Conservancy, said his group is teaming up with the U.S. Forest Service and a timber company to thin out the smaller logs instead of clear-cutting bigger trees.

"We really need to think of this as a partnership, because we're really no longer managing forests just for wood. We're managing them for water, for air quality, for storing carbon,” Graham said. "We're no longer clearing forests; we're creating forests."

The U.S. Forest Service has agreed to relax some of its rules to make it more cost-effective to harvest only the smaller logs. The goal is to thin out 20,000 acres over the next four years, then ramp up to 50,000 a year, eventually restoring 1 million acres of Arizona's ponderosa forest.

Graham said the feds used to spend millions to paint markings on trees to remove. But Future Forests came up with a better, cheaper plan.

"We developed a tablet technology where we digitized the forest and put the computer tablets in the cab of the harvesters,” he explained. "And they use that as a guide for thinning. It eliminates the need for paint marking the trees."

The program also benefits wildlife habitat and recreational activities. Graham said he estimates that if the government had to pay crews to do all this thinning work, it would cost almost $1 billion in the Grand Canyon State alone.

Suzanne Potter, Public News Service - AZ