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Managing Wildfires With Controlled Burns, Timber Harvest, and Grazing

Remember, only you can prevent forest fires,” is the line that millions of U.S. children have heard the rich baritone voice of Smokey the Bear intone over several generations. 

This struck advertising gold when Madison Avenue moguls first used it in the 1940s. Today, though, U.S. Forest Service (USFS) personnel would likely refine it to: “Remember, only you can prevent forest fires – although managing naturally occurring ones, sustainable timber harvest, and controlled burns are also tools to revitalize a forest.” 

“Controlled burns are a big part of what we do here,” says Debbie Cress, a USFS district ranger with the Tonto National Forest in Arizona. It’s challenging, because tucked into the Tonto National Forest are 70 communities and private landowners whom USFS personnel must protect from fire. Controlled burns, though, do much to thin brush that can fuel burns caused by lightning or humans, she says. 

The USFS is part of the USDA, which may seem like an odd fit. As with more familiar USDA components like grains and cattle, though, national forests have a harvest goal. Timber harvest formed the USFS’s backbone when President Theodore Roosevelt transferred public lands then designated as “forest reserves” to the USDA in 1905. 

“Back in the day, a ranger would be riding on a horse in the woods with a gun, taking care of the Forest Service’s mission for Teddy Roosevelt,” says Cress. The timber industry is still a player in the USFS’s mission. Since 1905, though, many other players now exist. 

Each year, around 5.8 million visitors hike, camp, horseback ride, fish, kayak, mountain bike, and do other recreational activities. 

Conventional agriculture is also present, as around 26,000 head of cattle annually graze the forest’s grasslands and mountain slopes. Hunters harvest the forest’s game that’s also a focus of wildlife enthusiasts. 

The growing environmental movement following the passage of the 1973 Endangered Species Act (ESA) also raised concerns regarding timber harvest. 

“Questions were asked, as to whether we were harvesting timber at the right scale and leaving enough resources behind not only for that but also for wildlife habitat,” says Cress.

successful-farming-january-cover
From Our January Issue: Guest Editor Sonny Perdue, Secretary of Agriculture

Why this story matters to me: In recent years, wildfires have increased in strength and severity with devastating effects. The U.S. Forest Service, in addition to the greater federal government, will continue to work with state and local authorities and private landowners to manage forests in a way that will help prevent such disastrous fires in the future.” – Sonny Perdue

Diversity

The Tonto National Forest contains a ponderosa pine-pocked slice of central Arizona heaven, with animals ranging from chipmunks to elk thriving in the 7,900-foot-high altitude of its northern Mogollon Rim. Farther south, wildlife like the desert shrew shimmy along the forest’s cactus-studded Sonoran Desert. In between these two extremes are over 17,000 acres of water bodies, fertile river valleys, rock canyons, and thousands of acres of grasslands. 

Still, trees and fires are to national forests what a baseball and a bat are to baseball players. History supports this logic. 

“Prehistoric native people used landscape fires to open up vegetation to grow crops and to move game around for hunting,” Cress says. 

Debbie-Cress
Debbie Cress
The Great Fire of 1910 that burned 3 million acres across parts of Idaho, Montana, Washington, and British Columbia changed early thinking about forest fires. “People saw a commodity being burned up and went into the mode of fire suppression,” says Cress.

This prompted policy that allowed vegetation to thicken over time. This created thick underbrush and tree stand counts that mushroomed from healthy 50-tree-per-acre ponderosa pine stands to 800-tree-per-acre thickets that create an illusion of a dense and healthy forest. 

Instead, thick stands stress trees, making them prone to bark beetle infestations. 

Climate change also weighs in. “We are warmer and drier than we used to be,” says Cress.

All this helps create a thicket-clogged powder keg of forest fire fuel waiting to be ignited by lightning or humans.

perdue-carr-fire

Secretary Perdue (right) reviews firefighting plans with USFS personnel.

The Dude Fire 

USFS personnel working at the Tonto National Forest still speak reverently about the 1990 Dude Fire that raged for seven days. A lightning strike that initially burned ¼ acre exploded across 26,500 acres. A 30-foot wall of fire – aided by 60 to 70 mph winds – ripped through a canyon and killed six firefighters. 

“It changed policy across the nation,” says Cress. Now, firefighters are kept abreast of fire developments and where to go in the event a fire rages out of control.

Jeremy-Plain
Jeremy Plain
The Dude Fire scorched the topsoil 6 to 8 inches down, making it difficult for the area’s predominant ponderosa pine trees to bounce back. “We planted love grass because there was a short supply of other native grasses,” says Jeff Leonard, a USFS timber management specialist.

Once established, this hardy grass can choke out more palatable grasses. “At least it saved the soil,” says Leonard. 

Ponderosa pine seedlings are now starting to compete with less-desirable juniper trees that grow back more quickly.

The Dude Fire also changed wildfire management strategies. “The days of rappelling firefighters into fires isn’t as common as it used to be,” says Jeremy Plain, a USFS fire management officer in the Tonto National Forest. “We prepare more now, working to suppress fires and being less reactive.” 

One example is a September 2016 fire caused by a lightning strike in steep and inaccessible terrain high on the Mogollon Rim. Rather than dropping in firefighters, a helicopter dropped chemical ping-pong ball-like spheres that burst into flames after being dropped. This helped keep the fire on the ground rather than moving into the tree canopy where it could have raged out of control.

Firefighters repeated this strategy down the mountain until the fire moved to flatter ground. They then moved in with drip fire torches to keep the fire even before a road serving as a fire break contained it. Besides keeping firefighters safer, this plan burned undergrowth that helped fuel fires in the first place, says Plain.  

This principle applies to controlled burns, too. “We make a plan beforehand, because there’s a balance between when it’s dry enough to burn, but moist enough not to scorch the trees,” says Cress.

USFS personnel first prepare the area by installing a fire break if a natural one like a road doesn’t exist. They’ll then remove most undergrowth below 9 inches to reduce the fuel load before lighting the fire. 

“When we open up the forest with controlled burns, we get both fire protection and restore the ecosystem to where natural forage increases to provide more habitat for wildlife,” says Leonard. 

Grazing

Livestock grazing allotments also play a role in reducing wildfire potential while benefitting local ranchers. “A lot of people here are nervous about fire,” says Erick Jackson, a ranch manager for Earnhardt Ranch, Payson, Arizona, which has a forest grazing allotment. “Still, people have realized how cattle can reduce fuel (for fire) next to their property. Just because cattle are in there doesn’t mean fire won’t occur, but it will help keep it from spreading.” 

“We incorporate lots of flexibility in the event of stressors like drought,” says Jeff Sturla, a rangeland management specialist with the Tonto National Forest. “There are some pastures that have lots of grass but not much water. So, we work with ranchers to develop water strategies.”

USFS range specialists aim to have 40% of the vegetation harvested by cattle and wildlife in order to allow grass recovery. 

Jackson says the brush and assorted grasses make good pasture for the cattle. Drawbacks exist, though. 

“Fence is extremely difficult to build in this area,” he says. “There are places you have to drill into rock, similar to a jack hammer, to drive the post in. It is a lot of work, but like anything else in life, if you do it right the first time, there is less maintenance.”

Sound Familiar?

Some concerns that irritate farmers and ranchers also come into play in the Tonto National Forest. 

“Ninety-nine percent of the people who come in here to hunt (on grazing allotted pasture) just want to hunt,” says Jackson. “But there is always that one person who says, ‘I pay my taxes, and this is public land,’ and they cut the fence. There are also hunters who open a gate and don’t close it. So, we get pretty creative with signs telling them there are cattle in there and to close the gate.” 

Federal laws like the ESA also come into play. “There is a saying that where Arizona grows, water flows,” says Buzz Walker, water director for the town of Payson. Pipelines that ferried water from a northern source that the city of Payson would receive crossed the local East Verde River. The river provided habitat to the narrow-headed garter snake, which received ESA protection in 2014. 

“Having a new listing during construction caused a lot of apprehension,” says Walker. USFS personnel worked with U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to ensure habitat was not disturbed when the pipelines were dug.

Challenges 

Federal funding has and will continue to be a Forest Service challenge, says Cress. 

“We need to make sure we stay relevant for people who use and value public lands,” she says.

One way to garner support is to integrate with local communities.

“We did a frog release with the Hopi (Indian) children at their schools,” says Christina Akins, a USFS wildlife biologist. 

Aquatic creatures like amphibians are connected spiritually with the Hopi in their culture. “The elders went to the edge of the water and said a ceremonial prayer, and the Hopi kids got to release the frogs,” she says.

Cress notes there have been citizens frustrated with government management of public lands. 

“At times, we have closed portions of the forest to the public,” she says. “It is frustrating, but it has reduced human-caused fires significantly. 

“I have never been in a situation where I didn’t feel we could talk to each other,” she adds. “It is important for us to show respect for them when talking about issues important to them and from their perspective. We are here to serve the public and to listen to them.” 

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