As summer camping season reaches full swing, tourists and Arizonans are lamenting over closures to areas of our national forests. Restrictions to hugely popular recreation areas such as Fossil Creek or C.C. Cragin Reservoir have been imposed because of the high risk of wildfires.
When U.S. National Forest officials announced in May that they would temporarily close large areas of our national forest lands because of extreme wildfire conditions, it signified much more than an inconvenience to summer vacation plans.
The forest closures are also a clear indication that our forests are at risk and more needs to be done — immediately — to protect our communities, ecosystems, wildlife and water supply that are all a part of our forested lands.
When folks turn the tap in their homes, many do not realize the water that flows to our homes and businesses essentially comes from our national forests. Unfortunately, our forests are overburdened. Tree densities are excessively high and these unnatural conditions create unhealthy trees and forest conditions with extremely high fuel loads to potentially feed devastating and catastrophic fires.
Re-establishing healthy forests is critical to maintain and protect the health of the Valley’s water supply. Unfortunately, the forest closures are needed to lower the risk of the next large catastrophic wildfire.
Arizona is in the midst of the worst drought on record. The forests are dry and overgrown, which is a recipe for disaster. With plenty of fuel ready to burn, one unintended spark in the forest could have devastating impacts. Catastrophic events such as the Rodeo-Chediski and Wallow fires are stark reminders of the widespread damage of these fires.
From the loss of property and wildlife to impacts to the water that feeds Salt River Project’s reservoirs with ash, organics and heavy metals, these fires are having life-long impacts. Runoff following a wildfire also carries enormous amounts of sediment. The sediment then accumulates in our reservoirs, lessens the reservoirs’ storage capacity and essentially reduces the drought resiliency of our water supply.
The forest closures are a symptom of a larger problem: The need to reduce tree density and re-establish these forested lands to a more natural condition. It is imperative that we accelerate treatments to thin the forests. The closures serve as warning signals that the sooner we expand the forest-products industry in our state to thin our forests, the fewer forest closures will occur.
SRP’s very history is based upon protecting the forested lands to safeguard the watershed. Late in the 1880s Valley farmers, who later formed SRP, petitioned Congress to set asides lands within the watershed to protect the water supply. These lands became today’s national forest lands, and that primary purpose to protect the water supply remains in place today.
Because of what is at risk, SRP is taking a more proactive approach in these efforts to restore forests and protect the watersheds. In partnership with the Bureau of Reclamation, the U.S. Forest Service and the state of Arizona, work is now being done to merge resources and develop innovative solutions to attract industry and increase the rate of forest restoration.
Our goal within the next year is to develop cost-effective solutions that attract forest-product industry investment and create well-paying jobs in rural Arizona.
The forest closures and restrictions will remain in place until the return of the annual summertime monsoon moisture. The success of our efforts to restore the forests to a more natural condition will mean future forest closures may be less frequent or not necessary.
SRP, together with many other stakeholders, is committed to being a good steward of our forests, watersheds and the reservoirs and water system that link and depend upon the health of these forested lands. Our biggest worry when visiting our forests should be where to find the idyllic campsite or areas to hike, hunt, fish or view wildlife — not a catastrophic fire.
To learn more about SRP’s involvement in healthy forests, visit www.srpnet.com/forests.
Bruce Hallin is the Director of Water Supply for SRP and has more than 35 years of experience in the water and power utility business.