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Arizona has faced death and destruction from forest fires for a long time, and government has a huge cost of fighting fires annually. For a decade, the Four Forest Restoration Initiative has sought to thin forests and find a use for the wood. It has not been highly successful, and now the U.S. Forest Service is trying a new approach. It relies less on market forces, which is a mistake long term.

The approach for the last decade has been seeking to build up an industry that would use the wood from forest thinning at little cost to taxpayers. That has been slow at becoming successful, and now the Forest Service will have a $54 million budget for the current fiscal year to pay for thinning. That money, while substantial, will not go far on the overall need. However, the idea is to prioritize “firescape” projects near Payson, Show Low, Pinetop-Lakeside, Flagstaff and the watershed of C.C. Cragin Reservoir. That would do the most good on fire protection of the most vulnerable areas.

The plan also stays with the concept of sending logs to regional timber mills and the state’s only biomass-burning power plant in Snowflake.

Federal officials acknowledge that new partners and much more federal money will be needed eventually to thin 1 million acres to reduce wildfire risk and protect watersheds. The latter point is crucial as well because overgrown forests, which have gotten worse in recent decades, take water that could be used downstream.

A long-standing drought is only part of the cost of the challenge. Also, there is decades of mismanagement of the forests. The Forest Service spends billions of dollars annually on fighting fires.

The new program, following cancellation of the old by the federal government, is at least something. However, a healthy forest industry is the best long-term approach for effectiveness and cost control, and that should be the ongoing objective.

— Donovan Kramer Jr.

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