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Arizonans leverage local resources to prevent wildfire

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Christi Turner | May 08, 2014 05:00 AM

While last week the federal government predicted a major budget shortfall for fighting wildfire, some groups are looking for innovative ways to fund wildfire prevention at the local level instead of waiting for the feds to pick up the bill.

The latest Department of Interior and Forest Service forecasts for wildfire suppression expenditures are higher than ever, and the agencies will likely need to spend $1.8 billion fighting fires this year – about $470 million more than the available federal budget. The primary culprit making fires more severe and intense – and hence more expensive to fight – is climate change: This week’s National Climate Assessment from the White House hammers home the point that wildfires are only getting worse as the climate warms. “Wildfires start earlier in the spring and continue later into the fall,” John Holdren, Obama’s science adviser, said in a video that summarizes the assessment. “Rain comes down in heavier downpours. …Drought and increased warming in the southwest foster wildfires, and increased competition for scarce water resources for people and for ecosystems.”

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The steep forested hillside overlooking Flagstaff is being mitigated and restored wholly through a $10 million municipal bond. Photo courtesy of the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project.

But innovative local investment in preventing wildfires could help offset the projected shortage of federal funds to fight them. Last week, more than 100 people – mostly Arizona land managers, scientists, policy-makers and people from the private sector – attended a workshop, “Investing in Restoration: Arizona’s Forests and Watersheds,” in Tempe, Arizona to brainstorm on how local communities can mitigate for wildfire by keeping their ecosystems healthy. The key goal, said co-organizer Diane Vosick, was to identify local-scale funding mechanisms that could fast-track fire risk reduction measures, which have become particularly urgent in the face of the looming shortage of federal funds.

Vosick represents the Ecological Restoration Institute of Northern Arizona University, a co-organizer of the Tempe workshop alongside the Salt River Project utility company, which provides electricity to nearly a million people in the state. Both groups approach wildfire from an ecosystems standpoint: The forest, the watershed, wildlife habitat and quality of life are intertwined, and reducing risk of catastrophic fire means protecting that entire ecosystem. “We’re trying to be agile,” Vosick said, by tackling forest restoration and wildfire mitigation in tandem, and helping more communities to adopt (and finance) the approach.


This whole-ecosystem approach to reducing fire risk isn’t brand new, but the workshop was an important step toward spreading it beyond the handful of communities who have adopted it, which tend to be exceptionally resource-rich and fire-aware. By the end of the workshop, these local-scale funding ideas emerged as the most promising:

  • Municipal water fees. Either on a statewide, regional or local level, a small fee would be added to electricity bills to fund wildfire mitigation and watershed protection. This idea has been implemented in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and is garnering wide attention in fire-plagued Arizona.
  • Biomass burning. In the Prescott National Forest area, where pinyon-juniper and shrubs dominate the landscape, slash from forest thinning could be sold to a private sector biomass energy facility, ridding the forest of dangerous wildfire fuel while raising revenue to continue fire mitigation.
  • Revenue bonds. Some communities want to explore the option of using tax-exempt revenue bonds to fund infrastructure – such as roads and bridges, among other possibilities – whose tolls, charges or rents could in turn help fund forest health restoration and wildfire mitigation.
  • Corporate donors. Since businesses, like all community members, depend on the ecosystem services – like watershed protection, erosion control and clean air – local communities could run campaigns to garner financial support for mitigation from local businesses and larger corporate sponsors.

At least one community is already successfully addressing watersheds and wildfire in an integrated whole-ecosystem approach and at the local level. The Flagstaff Watershed Project, one of the only forest restoration projects in the country on National Forest land that’s being fully funded by a municipality. Its funds are being used to restore forest health in hillsides above the city, where steep and rocky terrain, the presence of threatened species and other complications make mitigation -- such as tree thinning -- costly and complex.

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The Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project team visits a test site above the city to test the viability of tree thinning equipment on steep rocky slopes. Photo courtesy of the FWPP.

Flagstaff is already particularly wildfire savvy, said Wally Covington, director of the Ecological Restoration Institute, and a number of other wildfire efforts have emerged in the city over the past 20 years. But broad support for the project was spurred in part by Flagstaff’s 2010 Schultz Fire, which made the links between wildfire and watersheds abundantly clear: The fire was followed by severe flooding that destabilized an alluvial fan (a cone-shaped deposit of sediment and debris) that will now likely be eroding for thousands of years to come, affecting the water supply and threatening homes. The fire spared the city, but the flood caused tens of millions of dollars in damage and threatened the city’s water resources.

A new report by Headwaters Economics, highlighting the need to leverage local resources to reduce fire risk, points to Flagstaff as having “taken and funded more measures to reduce the costs and risks of wildland fires than most communities in the West.” Yet ultimately not even the model communities are doing enough, according to the report, and a lack of resources and political will to mitigate characterizes the majority of the fire-prone West.

But as for the conference attendees in Arizona, many representing more rural, more conservative and less fire-aware places than Flagstaff, “they’re in it for the long haul,” Vosick said; they’re committed to taking the workshop ideas back to their local communities and officials to set them in motion.

Christi Turner is an editorial intern at High Country News. She tweets @christi_mada.

Patrick Alexander
Patrick Alexander Subscriber
May 08, 2014 03:20 PM
"The Flagstaff Watershed Project, one of the only forest restoration projects in the country on National Forest land that’s being fully funded by a municipality. Its funds are being used to restore forest health in hillsides above the city, where steep and rocky terrain, the presence of threatened species and other complications make mitigation -- such as tree thinning -- costly and complex."

Whether fire reduction efforts on forest service lands in Arizona, including tree-thinning, mastication, etc., qualify in any way as "forest restoration" is very questionable. It might. It might not. For the most part, we still do not understand variation in vegetation, nor the ecological forces driving that variation, in the western U.S. We have a guess as to what an area would look like if we weren't mucking with it; if it does not look like that now we have a guess as to why, and another guess as to what anthropogenic modifications will take us there. Some of these guesses are quite good and might reasonably be called knowledge. I don't believe there are any cases in the southwest in which this holds for the whole structure, however. For instance, in a few special, very localized cases, we might have a very good idea what the vegetation looked like prior to European meddling, solid evidence that it has changed substantially since, and a very good idea why... but no good evidence in support of taking some particular action to restore it. That, so far as I can tell, is one of the best-case scenarios, and rarely holds. Nonetheless, we decide to do something and to call that something "restoration". Ultimately, calling some action "restoration" is not so much a statement of fact as a way of communicating how we would prefer for our intentions to be perceived.
Patrick Alexander
Patrick Alexander Subscriber
May 08, 2014 03:22 PM
Borrowing from corporate lingo, the phrase "forest restoration" should generally be considered aspirational rather than factual.

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