COST-EFFECTIVENESS OF ECR IN STEMMING THE ECONOMIC AND ENVIRONMENTAL DEVASTATION OF FOREST FIRES

Since 2009, the U.S. Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution, a program of the Tucson-based Udall Foundation, has facilitated the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI). The 4FRI collaboration has brought together the timber industry, environmentalists, scientists, recreation interests, local governments, and four national forests in Arizona to jointly restore the forest ecosystems, reduce the threat of destructive wildfires, and strengthen local economies over the long term.

The four national forests—Coconino, Kaibab, Tonto, and Apache-Sitgreaves—cover almost 2.4 million acres. They provide critical ecosystem services, including watershed protection, wildlife habitat, recreation, and economic development opportunities for local communities. These forests have become degraded and currently face threats of catastrophic fire events, pest infestations, and uncertain effects of climate change.

In February 2011, the group signed an historic memorandum of understanding (MOU) that defines how the stakeholders and the USDA Forest Service will work together to develop and implement restoration projects for the four national forests. The restoration will involve a combination of efforts, including mechanical thinning of smaller trees in the overcrowded forests, prescribed burning, road obliteration, exotic species management, hand thinning, recreation management, and Wildland Fire Use techniques. Revenues from the commercial uses will largely offset the cost of restoration.

The MOU notes the benefits of collaboration saying,

...innovative collaboration can provide the U.S. Forest Service with better information, a more comprehensive and science-based planning process, better planning integration, conflict prevention, improved fact-finding, increased social capital, more effective implementation, enhanced environmental stewardship, and reduced litigation.

The potential impacts of the collaboration

When implemented, the 4FRI collaboration will result in restoration of the natural ecosystem of the forests, produce jobs for the local economy, and greatly reduce the risk of huge wildfires and the attendant costs of firefighting and catastrophic impacts on local communities and the environment.

The importance of this type of collaborative process has been highlighted this summer by the massive wildfires that burned 800,000 acres in Arizona by the July 4, 2011, weekend. The Wallow Fire—the largest wildfire ever to burn in Arizona—ripped through more than 538,000 acres, including areas that are part of the 4FRI. Once the fires were under control, authorities began anticipating additional environmental and economic damage from flooding of burned areas by seasonally heavy thunderstorms.

While the 4FRI had not yet begun on-the-ground restoration work by the 2011 fire season, similar restoration efforts have been credited with averting environmental and economic disaster and saving communities, homes, and businesses. For example, the White Mountain Stewardship Project thinned buffer areas around northern Arizona towns that were in the path of the Wallow Fire. That work is credited with saving the communities of Springerville, Alpine, and Nutrioso. The supervisor of Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, Chris Knopp, was quoted by the Associated Press on June 10, 2011, as saying, "If it weren't for that [the White Mountain Stewardship Project], we'd probably be having a much different discussion about Alpine right now, Nutrioso and Springerville. Those areas do have a buffer around them that has helped the firefighters very much in controlling this fire."

Another participant in the 4FRI, Ethan Aumack of the Grand Canyon Trust, told the Arizona Daily Star regarding the initiative, "We're right where we need to be now, but we should have been there 10 years ago. The reality is, if we had done what we are proposing to do 10 years ago, that (Wallow) fire would have behaved very differently."

U.S. Senator Jon Kyl testified before the Senate Natural Resources Committee in June 2011 in support of forest restoration efforts. "Although costs are still relatively high, when compared to the costs of suppression and the indirect costs of catastrophic wildfire, it is a small price to pay," Kyl said. "Prevention is always cheaper than fighting the disease."

The 4FRI collaboration has also been praised by Arizona officials. Governor Jan Brewer noted in a news release in 2010, "The Four Forests Restoration Initiative stands out as a national-caliber model collaborative effort to accelerate forest restoration across northern Arizona with strong social, industry, and science support. It will create much-needed jobs in rural Arizona and help bolster rural economic growth now and into the future."

Nationally, the departments of Interior and Agriculture spent $3.567 billion on fire in fiscal 2010, according to the President's Fiscal Commission report.

More information on the 4FRI collaboration is available at http://fourforestrestorationinitiative.org/ and at the U.S. Forest Service web site: http://www.fs.usda.gov/wps/portal/fsinternet/!ut/p/c4/04_SB8K8xLLM9MSSzPy8xBz9CP0os3gjAwhwtDDw9_AI8zPwhQoY6BdkOyoCAPkATlA!/?ss=119900&navtype=BROWSEBYSUBJECT&cid=FSE_003853&navid=091000000000000&pnavid=null&position=BROWSEBYSUBJECT&ttype=main&reload=true&pname=Four%20Forest%20Restoration%20Initiative-%20Home.

On August 26, 2011, Arizona Public Media Reporter Michael Chihak explored the aftermath of Arizona's wildfires and forest restoration on Arizona Week. Chihak interviewed Maggie McCaffrey, a program manager with the U.S. Institute for Environmental Conflict Resolution about our work with collaborative fire initiatives, including the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI). You can view the program here: http://www.azpm.org/news/story/2011/8/26/2030-episode-33-fire-is-inevitable-to-keep-arizona-wild/.

Debra Drecksel

Senior Program Manager / Senior Facilitator

Debra Drecksel is the U.S. Institute lead on this project. She is a Senior Program Manager and Senior Facilitator. Her life-long focus has been on how we can communicate most effectively with one another. She brings this focus to her collaborative environmental work at the U.S. Institute in assessments, process design and management, facilitation, mediation, and training. Drecksel embraces the Udall Foundation legacy of civility, integrity, and consensus.

Prior to joining the U.S. Institute, Drecksel successfully led collaborative processes on numerous projects, ranging from long-term interagency collaborations to enhance mutual mission accomplishment to multi-year transportation projects with stakeholders, including federal and state agencies, counties, cities, grassroots organizations, and the public. She also mediated many disputes; trained judges, lawyers, agencies, organizations, and individuals in communication, negotiation, conflict resolution, and mediation skills; served as a volunteer mediator for a community mediation program and the Arizona Attorney General's Office; served as a judicial clerk and intern in three courts; practiced law; served as the Chair of the Alternative Dispute Resolution Section of the Arizona State Bar; and served as a Judge Pro Tempore for the Pima County Superior Court.

Drecksel has an Honors Degree of B.A. and an M.A. in Interpersonal Communication as well as a Juris Doctor degree, all from the University of Utah. She taught communication courses at the University of Utah and the University of Arizona.

Drecksel can be reached at drecksel@ecr.gov.