Measure Would Allow Loggers To Thin Trees On State Lands

February 28, 2014

(Photo by Steve Shadley-KJZZ)
Republican State Rep. Brenda Barton of Payson testified about the Healthy Forests Bill before the Arizona House Appropriations Committee.

Last year’s deadly Yarnell Hill Wildfire has prompted state lawmakers to take action. A bill moving through the legislature would allow loggers to thin out trees and brush on state lands to prevent future fires. But,  environmentalists are concerned about the impact on pristine wilderness areas.

The bill sets aside almost $2 million from the state’s general fund to help cities and counties remove undesirable trees and brush from state lands.

Republican Rep. Brenda Barton of Payson is a co-sponsor. She said it is a reaction to last summer’s wildfire in Yarnell that killed 19 hotshot firefighters.

“As many of you know, it was on state trust land that we lost our firefighters," said Barton.

She said the state forester would be required to work with federal, county and tribal agencies to find out which wilderness areas need the most attention.

"It’s not a total clearing, it is basically a removal of the trash. The foliage and vegetation that is not needed on the land," Barton said.

Trees removed from state lands would be sold to lumber mills and supporters say it could potentially send millions of dollars to Arizona’s permanent school fund.

State Rep. Lisa Otondo, a Yuma Democrat, said the bill is a boost to Arizona’s economy.

“Up to 400 jobs will be made from this, from the best land management practices portion of the bill, and over $15 million in economic benefits,” said Otondo.

Supporters say the forest thinning bill has other benefits. Scottsdale Mayor Jim Lane said removing fuel for wildfires protects water quality in his city. He said past wildfires have sent dirt and soot into Scottsdale’s watersheds, and that has cost taxpayers $1 million to $2 million a year.

“It is expensive, and frankly it tries our system on both filtration and our chemicals and the extent of the retreatment of water which means moving it about so energy consumption also goes up," said Lane.

But, environmentalists question whether forest thinning with chain saws and shovels is the best land management practice. Sandy Bahr is with the Sierra Club in Arizona.

"We think that they should look at the ecological aspects of the land and not just say okay we have to remove vegetation. That’s really not the answer,” said Bahr.

Bahr said lightning sparked fires and controlled burns are a better way to thin forests, because it is a natural process that does not cause longer-term damage like cutting down trees. She is also concerned about the use of heavy equipment and creating new roads for timber harvests in the wilderness. Bahr said the state should do more to prevent the construction of homes near trust land and offer guidance to people who already live in fire prone areas.

“If the state really wants to help they could help communities with the defensible space, making sure property is easier to protect it from fire," said Bahr.

The bill has received initial approval in a legislative committee. It still needs passage in the full House.