This year's wildfire season could be even worse - East Valley Tribune: News

This year's wildfire season could be even worse

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Posted: Sunday, April 27, 2003 12:56 am | Updated: 2:19 pm, Thu Oct 6, 2011.

A square mile a minute.

That's how fast the Rodeo-Chediski fire raged toward the Mogollon Rim in eastern Arizona at its peak.

Click here for the Tribune's special section on wildfires

Its 400-foot flames reached temperatures of more than 2,000 degrees. It unleashed as much energy as a nuclear bomb. It destroyed everything in its path.

That the inferno came was not a surprise. Such a cataclysm had been predicted for years.

All that was in doubt was where it would strike, and when.

Those who predicted the Rodeo-Chediski fire with clarity say it is equally clear today that Arizona will see more catastrophic wildfires of the same magnitude, or worse. The prolonged drought, overgrown forests and insect infestations have created conditions more volatile than they were a year ago. The fear is that next time, cities such as Flagstaff, Prescott or Payson will be in the path of destruction.

“This is absolutely going to happen unless we do something about it," said Wally Covington, a forestry professor at Northern Arizona University. "And we don't have much time.”

No one disputes that Arizona's forests are in a dangerous and unhealthy state. But attempts to remedy the deterioration have bogged down in a tangled web of insurmountable laws, seemingly endless legal maneuvering, and festering distrust between forestry officials and environmentalists.

Paperwork is destroying the nation's forests, according to a four-month Tribune investigation aimed at cutting through the rhetoric that has dictated the debate over forest health. More than 10,000 pages of documents and court files were reviewed. The Tribune also conducted more than 100 interviews of government officials, environmentalists, academics and people who have seen their lives destroyed by the bureaucratic maze that makes it virtually impossible to thin the forests.

Paperwork must be churned out to meet the requirements of a layered patchwork of almost 200 different laws that govern decisions of the U.S. Forest Service and other land management agencies. Paperwork must be generated to guard against lawsuits and appeals, adding millions of dollars in costs and years of analysis to individual projects aimed at reducing fire hazards. The paperwork must anticipate an ever-evolving litany of court decisions that focus only on guarding against any short-term risk, with little or no consideration given to the fire danger that is building.

It typically takes two years to plan a project to thin the forests of debris and excess trees. Appeals and lawsuits, most often brought by environmental groups, can easily add another two or three.

Little has changed since June 18, 2002, when the Rodeo fire began on the Fort Apache Indian Reservation, eventually merging with the Chediski blaze that started two days later. Over the course of two weeks, it consumed nearly a half-million acres on the reservation and the adjacent Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests.

The Rodeo-Chediski fire was driven by a combination of the worst drought in recorded history, dense and overgrown thickets of trees, and the accumulation of tons of debris on the ground. Once the land was ignited, the conditions were perfect for what would be the most destructive wildfire in Arizona history.

The drought is not expected to relent. Rains earlier this year offer some reprieve, but Arizona is six years into what climatologists predict is a 30-year drought cycle.

While the rains probably will mean the wildfire season will start later this year than last, the danger for extreme wildfires remains as strong, says Kirk Rowdabaugh, deputy state forester for the state Land Department.

A half-million acres of forest in Arizona also are being ravaged by an infestation of bark beetles, which have already killed millions of trees, leaving only dry needles and dead hulks in their wake.

And ever-present is the quagmire of laws and regulations that for more than a decade has frustrated advocates of thinning out the dense stands of trees to restore forest health. Nowhere is the frustration more apparent than along the tiny string of communities that were in the path of the Rodeo-Chediski fire.

For Richard and Bonnie Gibson, there is little hope that the inferno that destroyed their home south of Heber will be the wake-up call that leads to change. Richard Gibson, 70, grew up in the house, which was built in 1916. The couple has lived there since the mid-1950s. Now they say their land will never be the same because of years of mismanagement by federal bureaucrats, and years of legal actions by environmentalists.

“The Forest Service is totally out of control from their lack of doing anything,” said Bonnie Gibson, who spent 10 summers working as a fire spotter in a nearby tower. “They let these environmentalists control everything. It's maddening. No matter how loud we yell and scream, they're not paying any attention to us because the big hot-shot lawyers and all the wealthy people rule the area. It's not the locals that have a say. It's all these other people that shouldn't have a darned thing to do with us.”

Federal land management agencies in Arizona have spent the last decade fighting various interest groups, primarily environmental organizations that are well-financed and backed by a barrage of lawyers, according to agency documents and court records.

One large-scale thinning project on Apache-Sitgreaves had been stalled for three years by appeals and a lawsuit, which was rendered moot after 90 percent of the area burned in the Rodeo-Chediski fire, according to court records.

Because of the convoluted and conflicting laws, environmental groups, or even a single individual, have ample grounds to bring appeals and lawsuits that can tie up forest decisions for years, agency officials say.

Federal bureaucracies have added to the delays. Beyond laws on the books, the agencies have added their own rules and regulations, creating a system in which projects to thin forests might have to go through 800 steps in the decision-making process, according to an agency's own documents. At any of those steps, the entire project can be sent back to the beginning.

Once that cumbersome internal process is finished, forest treatment projects are likely to become the target of appeals and lawsuits that can drag on for years.

“It's stagnation,” said Pat Jackson, appeals and litigation officer for the Forest Service's Southwest region, which includes Arizona. “It's paralysis. What you are seeing is a buildup over time of statutory requirements and regulatory requirements that are just very time-consuming and burdensome, and not always working toward the same end.

“You spend all of your time hanging paper. Which does what for the resource on the ground? The answer is all this paper doesn't do anything. We've got to change the rules.”

Environmentalists generally agree that the forests have deteriorated to an unhealthy and dangerous state. Overstocking of trees and the buildup of fuels on the ground have created an unnatural condition in which small ground fires, which naturally cleanse the forests, are carried into the treetops and turn into destructive infernos, said Brian Segee of the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity.

But Segee and other environmental activists said the laws are not the problem. Nor are the dozens of appeals and lawsuits that have been brought by environmentalists, he said.

Rather it is the Forest Service's long history of cow-towing to the timber industry, he said. For the last 100 years, the forests have been managed to maximize timber production, leading to policies such as fire suppression and allowing the oldest, most fire-resistant trees to be cut, Segee said. The new push by the agency and the Bush administration to rewrite the laws is an attempt to allow the timber industry to regain absolute control of forest management, he said.

“I guess I'm always a little struck when I see these reports about this morass of regulations that is indecipherable,” Segee said. “These laws are certainly not the most complex laws on the books. The underlying motivation is that the Forest Service wants to do what it wants to do and the public be damned.”

The General Accounting Office, the investigative branch of Congress, concluded in a series of reports in 1999 that the Forest Service has a history of mixing thinning projects with timber sales as a means of getting more work done. That creates an incentive to target thinning projects in areas where there is commercially marketable timber to be cut, not necessarily those where the fire risk is the greatest, the GAO concluded.

However, the GAO also noted that the Forest Service was “an agency in transition” through the 1990s, shifting its primary focus from timber production to restoring overall forest health.

In Congress and the courts, the philosophical debate has raged for decades, since a surge of new laws aimed at protecting the environment were passed beginning in the late 1960s.

In Arizona, the real-world effect of the ever-more cumbersome regulations has been devastating.

Ideally, the ponderosa pine forests of northern Arizona would have between 50 and 200 trees per acre, depending on conditions and the size of the trees, said Thomas Kolb, a forestry professor at Northern Arizona University. Such a mosaic is typical of what was carried on the land before the influx of European settlers about 130 years ago, he said.

But in the past century, low-intensity ground fires that would normally clear debris and smaller trees have been suppressed, causing the forests to grow thicker. In the past decade, lawsuits and the morass of federal regulations hampered forest-thinning efforts, including on Apache-Sitgreaves.

As a result, when the Rodeo fire began, there were on average between 1,500 and 2,000 trees per acre on Apache-Sitgreaves, mostly clumps of smaller trees that carry the flames into the crowns of the larger, older trees, said Tom Beddow, fire management officer for the forest.

On the Apache-Sitgreaves floor, roughly 70 to 80 tons of debris per acre had accumulated by the time the Rodeo-Chediski fire hit, Beddow said. A healthy accumulation is deemed to be about three to five tons per acre, he said.

The conditions in the forest were ideal for a devastating crown fire, the most dangerous and difficult to fight, Beddow said. A crown fire burns in the treetops with such intensity that it generates its own winds. Its heat rises into the atmosphere, then collapses, spewing its flames in all directions, he said.

“I don't think it was a real big surprise,” Beddow said of the intensity of the Rodeo-Chediski fire.

Indeed, the warnings that Arizona was facing a catastrophic wildfire of a magnitude unseen in history had been mounting for years.

In 1994, Covington, who has become one of the nation's leading advocates for aggressive forest thinning, warned that the size, severity and destructiveness of wildfires in Arizona showed an ecological disaster in the making. He predicted “exponential increases in the severity and extent of catastrophic fire.”

What is needed now is large-scale treatments that dramatically thin out the forests, Covington said. The forests cannot sustain thousands of trees per acre, he said. The small-scale treatments being done in patches of 40 or 50 acres are inadequate to either return forest health or curtail the threat of wildfires, he said.

“What's frustrating to me is I don't see big thinking about resolving the problem,” Covington said. “We have to be operating at the scale that the disturbance is occurring at, which is 100,000 acres-plus now. We need to be looking at units 100,000 acres in size and getting treatments into those units.”

In 2002, wildfires wiped out 7.2 million acres nationally. It was surpassed in destruction only by the fires of 2000, which burned 8.4 million acres. Forest Service estimates now say that roughly 190 million acres of public land in the continental United States — an area the size of Maryland and Rhode Island combined — are at high risk of catastrophic wildfire. In Arizona, about 1.65 million wooded acres are considered at high or extreme risk of wildfire this year, according to figures from the state Land Department.

The 2000 fire season was seen as a turning point in the recognition that wildfires had become the most ominous threat facing the nation's public land. While that led to much talk of collaboration, it was not until the devastation returned in 2002 that a serious push began to reform the underlying laws and process that governs agency decisions.

Last June, while the embers of the Rodeo-Chediski fire were still smoldering, the Forest Service released a comprehensive study of the bureaucratic quagmire that governed the agency, called "The Process Predicament."

The report concluded that about 40 percent of the work done at the local forest level was spent navigating the ever-growing paperwork burden that comes with making any sort of decision. Such “excessive analysis” costs the agency about $250 million per year in planning costs, according to the report.

A single thinning project can take years to plan and cost more than $1 million, according to the findings.

The process predicament had its roots in a series of laws passed by Congress, beginning in the 1960s and continuing through the 1970s, which increasingly put heavy emphasis on environmental protection, species preservation and public involvement in decisions made in governing public land, according to the agency's report. Before that, forests were largely managed to ensure timber production.

While each new law was passed with good intentions and solid backing by the public, there was little effort to coordinate them or define procedures to ensure efficient management, according to the report. The agencies themselves followed up with thousands of pages of regulations. Those were followed by a slew of court interpretations of the laws. Often different courts gave different interpretations, or added new requirements, creating even more confusion, according to the report.

With each new law, each new regulation, each new court interpretation the cumbersome bureaucracy grew more complex.

“The rules and regulations have placed the Forest Service in a serious predicament, whereby the process defeats its own purpose,” the report concluded. “The problem is this: We are following the letter of our environmental laws without infusing their spirit into what is actually happening on the land.”

The findings of that report have played out on forests throughout Arizona, according to Forest Service officials interviewed by the Tribune.

John Bedell, who retired this month as supervisor of Apache-Sitgreaves, agrees with the assessment that about 40 percent of the planning time at the local level is spent on paperwork, largely preparing documents to help make projects “bulletproof” against appeals and litigation.

Harv Forsgren, Southwestern regional forester for the Forest Service, said the defensive paperwork typically does nothing to improve a project, but rather is done to make it defensible either on appeal or in court. Many agency decisions end up being reversed because of problems in the mounds of paperwork that must be prepared, he said. Rarely is a project derailed because there is evidence it would cause environmental harm, he said.

“We generally get tripped up on process-related stuff rather than a substantive finding that we are doing something contrary to the best available science or something like that,” Forsgren said. “It's a time-frame problem or a documentation problem or something else, some requirement of process. And there are hundreds of those as you move through the development and implementation of a project. So of course our reaction to that has been to try and bulletproof our documentation.”

Environmentalists say the claims of excessive regulation are overblown.

While there may be 200 laws that govern the public land agencies, only about a half-dozen major ones typically come into play, said John Talberth, president of the New Mexico-based Forest Conservation Council.

The intent of those laws is basic, he said. They require federal agencies to ensure their actions do not cause harm to threatened or endangered species. They ensure the public has ample opportunity to comment on decisions involving the governance of public land. They require the decisions of the Forest Service and other agencies are based on the best available science, and that they are not “arbitrary and capricious.”

Most environmental groups support thinning projects that target treatments around populated areas, and that involve such things as removing small-diameter trees and prescribed burning, Talberth said. The federal agencies invite appeals and lawsuits when they advance plans that would allow timber companies to cut large trees deep in the forests, he said.

“There are hundreds of projects that go forward that are not appealed or litigated,” Talberth said. “Those are projects that the environmental community generally support. But once you start mixing up these restoration projects, you might have half the project be legitimate and the other half really is just commercial timber sales with no ecological objective. That's where you start getting the appeals.”

Charges that the timber industry calls the shots for the Forest Service are ludicrous, at least in Arizona, according to Lewis Tenney of Heber, a former Navajo County supervisor who spent 18 years as co-owner of a sawmill in the area before selling his interest three years ago.

The logging industry was virtually wiped out in the mid-1990s because of lawsuits from environmental groups, Tenney said. A healthy timber industry removes excess growth from the forest, he said. The steep buildup of fuels began after the federal court injunctions decimated the industry, he said. That is the reason the Rodeo-Chediski fire got out of control, he said.

“Here you've got a forest that needs the extraction of wood from it and we don't have any industry to take it,” Tenney said. “The Forest Service over the years has wanted to manage, but they have been stopped on every turn by the extreme preservation movement. It's terrible the credibility that these folks have been given when the truth is they should have egg all over their faces.”

Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., who has long pushed efforts at reforming laws governing public land management, said the visceral fear that some radical environmentalists have against logging makes them unwilling to reach reasonable compromise. Though their credibility has been shaken by the wildfires in the last few years, those groups remain politically powerful, Kyl said.

That makes it unlikely that broad reforms will be passed anytime soon, he said.

“The radicals are so afraid that a logging industry will again be created here that they're literally willing to let the forest die or burn up in order to prevent logging from starting up again,” Kyl said.

The General Accounting Office has laid much of the blame for the quagmire on the Forest Service. The Forest Service's historical objective has been to maximize timber production, according to the investigative arm of Congress. In a series of reports issued in 1999, the GAO concluded the Forest Service was not taking the building danger of catastrophic fires seriously, and that it remained wedded to the old management style favoring timber sales.

More recent reports show the agency cannot account for the money that has been allocated for fuel reduction treatments, or ensure that it is being spent on the areas most at risk.

The agency's method of gauging its success also creates a disincentive to treat the areas at the greatest risk of catastrophic wildfires, according to a 1999 GAO report. The Forest Service bases its success on the number of acres treated. That creates an incentive to prioritize areas where treatment costs are low, rather than the areas around communities where the costs are typically higher, according to the GAO findings.

The Forest Service also has co-mingled its forest health projects with timber sales, which creates more of an incentive to rely on timber harvesting to lower the per-acre cost of treatment, and thereby increase the number of acres treated for its report to Congress, according to the auditors.

But more disturbing than the costs, the GAO concluded as late as 1999 that the Forest Service was moving too slowly to reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfires.

“To date, we have not seen the strong leadership or marshalling of funds and resources within the agency that would indicate to us that the Forest Service feels a sense of urgency and assigns a high priority to reducing the threat of catastrophic wildfires,” concluded one GAO report issued in June 1999.

And so the finger-pointing continues.

While the the political battles rage in Washington, D.C., and the legal battles are waged in courtrooms across the country, the feelings of helplessness build as quickly as the danger for those still living in the line of fire.

Danny Rogers, 31, who lost his home in the Heber area to the Rodeo-Chediski fire, said he is not optimistic that the political bickering will be resolved anytime soon, or that other communities across Arizona will be spared the same fate he suffered.

“It adds to the frustration,” Rogers says. “You've got people making the rules and doing the decision-making that don't even live up here. They don't know what's going on in the forests.

“There's another one coming this year. With the conditions the way they are, there's no doubt they'll be fighting another one this year somewhere else in the state, maybe in the same area.”

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