Norton lauds Arizona forest thinning project |

Norton lauds Arizona forest thinning project

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) – Standing under a group of 300-year-old Ponderosa pines outside this northern Arizona city, Interior Secretary Gale Norton said fire and chain saws can make a healthier forest.

Thinning out young pines and burning the ground to restore grass are the best way to protect the forest from catastrophic fires and make it healthier in the long term, she said.

”Last year was one of the worst fire seasons ever and we need to look at fire suppression, but we also want to take a step toward a long term solution,” Norton said Wednesday as she visited the Fort Valley Experimental Forest.

Treating the forest by thinning out the trees that have grown since the late 19th century and burning the forest about every three years to remove thick carpets of pine needles so grass can grow is what should be done across the West, U.S. Forest Service Chief Dale Bosworth said.

”Exactly this kind of treatment is what has to happen across the West of the United States,” he said. ”We have only 20 years to treat 30 million acres. … Those forests are going to die. We need a commitment from Washington to fund (treatment).”

Early settlers with their livestock and the wrong concept of fire prevention are what caused these forests to deteriorate, said Wallace Covington, the Northern Arizona University professor who leads the project.

Sheep and cattle grazed the land eliminating grass, which was thought to help curb the spread of wildfires; the last natural grass fire in this patch of forest was in 1876, Covington said.

Instead, the bare ground allowed pines to grow uncontrolled, covering the soil with dry needles that are perfect fuel for large fires and suffocating the trees, killing them well before their natural death around 700 years of age.

”We’ve got a tumor growing on the land, causing the ecosystem to decline rapidly,” Covington said.

Since 1992, university professors and students have been trying to restore about eight acres of ponderosa forest to its pre-settlement state, and the treated forest has been recovering.

Their work is part of the Fort Valley Restoration Project by the Grand Canyon Forest Partnership, a group of government and nongovernment organizations. The project covers about 1,900 acres in the Coconino National Forest on which various thinning and burning treatments have been employed.

”All these ecosystems need is a little help,” Covington said.

The restoration site is just a few yards away from a stand of dying, 50-foot tall pines rooted in soil choked by a thick layer of brown needles and surrounded by an impassable growth of smaller trees.

In the treated area, the old pines and a few scattered younger trees stand tall on a lush carpet of green grass. While the effect on large animals remains to be seen, rodents, reptiles and insects are flocking back to the restored forest. For example, the treated area already boasts 60 percent more butterfly species than the damaged forest, Covington said.

Critics, however, say the thinning amounts only to logging and is detrimental to the forest.

Outside the project area, about 30 environmentalists protested Norton’s visit and the Bush administration’s environmental policies, especially drilling and logging on public lands. One Earth First! protester held a rain-soaked sign, ”More trees, less Bush.”

”I think nature knows what to do with the forest,” Earth First! member Jasper Shields said. ”When we see trees as resources, we’re missing the point.”

Bosworth and Coconino National Forest officials said forest treatment is not extreme and should be sped up because the rate of destruction is going up.

In this forest alone, 60,000 acres were lost to fire since 1990 and thinning out 10,000 acres a year isn’t enough to stop the forest from becoming denser and therefore more susceptible to fire, forest official John Gerritsma said.

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