Strategic Thinning Tackling Dangerous Areas Near Payson to Protect Communities, Improve Forest Health
Government Agencies, Arizona Companies Work to Help Prevent Forest Fires
Strategic forest thinning is underway north of Payson in an effort by SRP, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management (DFFM), and other partners to prevent catastrophic wildfires.
Arizona Game and Fish Department, Arizona Public Service (APS), the Arizona Sportsman for Wildlife Conservation, Arizona Deer Association, and the Pine/ Strawberry Fuels Inc. have also joined SRP to support the Hardscrabble Thinning Project, which will remove dense thickets of junipers and restore the landscape to a more natural condition, eliminating the threat of catastrophic wildfire, protecting nearby communities and habitat for wildlife from the impacts of wildfire including protecting the watershed and nearby high-voltage transmission power lines that provide water and power to the Valley.
The project is also part of the US Department of Agriculture’s 10-year strategy aimed at addressing the wildfire crisis by treating critical firesheds with the help of partners. Firesheds are large, forested landscapes with a high likelihood that an ignition could expose communities and infrastructure to wildfire. Payson and nearby communities are within one of the top firesheds in the country.
In 2021, Governor Doug Ducey signed the $100 million HB 2001, which includes $25 million for the Arizona Healthy Forest Initiative. An initiative designed to reduce wildfire fuels around communities and increase partnerships.
That is why state and federal agencies along with companies and non-governmental organizations have committed to investing in forest restoration through partnerships, education and supporting industry. The Hardscrabble project will clear approximately 1,200 acres of overgrown brush and small trees that threaten surrounding communities, watersheds and power infrastructure if a wildfire were to start in the area.
The forested lands of northern Arizona have been hit by devastating wildfires and are primed for more infernos like those that impacted California and Colorado. Many forested lands in northern Arizona have thousands of trees per acre and have suffered from extreme drought, which can fuel large wildfires that are uncontrollable with catastrophic impacts.
“Partnerships are a vital component to the work that we are doing here on forest restoration projects,” said Elvy Barton, SRP forest health management principal. “Thinning projects like this allow for a decrease in the wildfire risk. This will allow for healthier trees that will be resilient to climate change effects, including drought.”
SRP manages the water supply for much of the Valley – most of which comes from 8.3 million acres of land in northern Arizona. Snowfall and rain provide the water that travels through the watershed into SRP reservoirs, which is then delivered to 2.5 million homes and businesses in the Phoenix metropolitan area via an extensive network of canals.
For as little as $3 a month, SRP customers and others are encouraged to donate to the reforestation efforts through the SRP Healthy Forest Initiative. One-hundred percent of the contributions will go toward forest restoration projects and SRP will match every dollar you contribute up to $200,000 per year.
This is exciting news for Rich VanDemark, forestry operations manager for the Department of Forestry and Fire Management, who has been in forestry for several decades.
“We're not just talking the talk, we're sharing resources, we're sharing talent and techniques and innovation all to get work done and move the needle,” Rich said. “Arizona is primed for catastrophic wildfires because there is limited moisture compared to other parts of the world and the country and we have an overabundance of woody biomass.”
And the issue didn’t start overnight.
“Hundreds of years of fire suppression was the first step. And then climate change that resulted in longer and drier seasons and fire seasons that are now more than 100 days long throughout the summer,” said William Dudley, Hazardous Fuels Specialist with the Tonto National Forest. “With the trees that are closer together and underbrush, you will see canopy fires that are harder to extinguish.”
APS has over 6,000 miles of transmission lines and 32,000 miles of distribution lines across the state and one of the most diverse ecosystems in the Southwest.
“This is a great example of the cooperation and partnerships with a cohesive strategy. We all understand the problem, the challenges, and we're all working together to try to minimize that risk,” said Wade Ward, fire mitigation specialist supervisor with APS.
“Pine Strawberry Fuel Reduction is proud to be a part of this vital project continuing our mission of reducing the risk of catastrophic wildfire in the communities of Pine and Strawberry,” said Scott Kehl, Pine Strawberry Fuel Reduction Director at Large.
The project was a natural fit for the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
“The Department has a long history of partnering on restoration efforts around the town of Payson. The surrounding forest has grown decadent and modern forest treatments provide tremendous benefits for both wildlife and the overall health of the ecosystem. Through partnerships like SRP, we can align shared goals and combine resources to maximize on the ground benefits,” said Dan Sturla, Landowner Relations & Habitat Enhancement Program Manager with the Arizona Game and Fish Department.
The goal is also to have a sustainable forest product industry, which is critical to restoring forest lands. Expanding existing industry capacity and attracting new forest product companies are critical to achieving meaningful progress. It will also have the added benefit of providing more rural jobs, increasing infrastructure and equipment investments, and helping drive rural economic development opportunities.
“Arizona Sportsmen for Wildlife Conservation (AZSFWC) is pleased to be involved and engaged on the watershed rehabilitation projects underway by SRP. Through our L. Gary Stinson Grant Program, AZSFWC awarded the Arizona Deer Association funding to work directly with SRP on the Hardscrabble Project southwest of Pine, AZ. AZSFWC and our non-profit members look forward to future collaborative efforts at restoring and rehabilitating even more forest habitat in Central Arizona,” said Jim Unmacht, Executive Director of Arizona Sportsmen for Wildlife Conservation.
SRP is a community-based, not-for-profit public power utility and the largest provider of electricity in the greater Phoenix metropolitan area, serving more than 1 million customers. SRP is also the metropolitan area’s largest supplier of water, delivering about 750,000 acre-feet annually to municipal, urban and agricultural water users.