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Originally published June 9, 2011 at 8:21 PM | Page modified June 10, 2011 at 10:59 AM

Arizona wildfire rekindles debate over logging rules

A wildfire that could become the largest in Arizona history is rekindling the blame game surrounding ponderosa-pine forests that have become dangerously overgrown after a century of fire suppression.

The Associated Press

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SPRINGERVILLE, Ariz. — A wildfire that could become the largest in Arizona history is rekindling the blame game surrounding ponderosa-pine forests that have become dangerously overgrown after a century of fire suppression.

Some critics put the responsibility on environmentalists for lawsuits that have cut back on logging. Others blame overzealous firefighters for altering the natural cycle of lightning-sparked fires that once cleared the forest floor.

Either way, forests across the West that once had 50 trees per acre now have hundreds, sometimes thousands, and much of the landscape is choked with tinder-dry brush.

The density of the growth has fueled immense blazes in recent years, such as the 525-square-mile blaze now burning in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest northeast of Phoenix.

"I think what is happening proves the debate," said state Sen. Sylvia Allen, a Republican from rural Snowflake.

In the past, a 30-square-mile fire was considered huge. "And it used to be the loggers got right on it. Never in the past have you had these huge fires."

Today, it's not uncommon for fires to exceed 150 square miles.

On Thursday, the huge blaze known as the Wallow fire continued burning out of control after reportedly being sparked by a campfire. It has become the second-largest wildfire in state history and was growing.

An extremely dry late winter and spring contributed to the fire conditions, drying out the forest and allowing winds to carry the flames into the treetops, where they spread by miles each day.

More than 525 square miles have been blackened, and thousands of people have been forced to flee from mountain resort communities and two large towns at the forest's edge.

Many in Arizona blame the legal battles that have erupted over old-growth logging that threatened endangered species such as the Mexican spotted owl. Since those disputes prevented regular logging that would have thinned the number of trees, the forests became overgrown, they say.

Environmentalists insist that theory is a scare tactic.

"That's just wrong, flat-out wrong," said Bryan Bird of Wildearth Guardians, which has been involved in some of the lawsuits.

"These people are misinformed or they're intentionally trying to scare people in a time that they're already terrified. It's pure politics."

Experts such as professor Wally Covington of Northern Arizona University, who has studied Western forests for decades, say the problems have been building for decades, and blaming lawsuits ignores those facts. Nearly half a million square miles of ponderosa and conifer forests are at risk across the West, he said.

Historically, those forests were relatively thin, with grass and wildflowers growing beneath the canopy. Every two to 10 years, a fire would move through and burn out the undergrowth and small trees.

As the region was settled in the 1880s, cattle were brought in to feast on the grass, which limited fires and let small trees mature. Early foresters liked that, because they wanted the forest fully stocked with trees. And they began putting out fires early in the 1900s to help the trees grow, Covington said.

As the forest got thicker, fires got harder to fight, and the U.S. Forest Service hired thousands of men to battle the flames. Small fires that reached into the treetops were first seen in Arizona in the 1940s. In the following decades, the typical treetop fire went from a few acres to a few thousand to more than 10,000 by the 1990s.

In the 2000s, huge fires emerged that turned hundreds of thousands of acres to ash.

"Now, we're firmly in the multiple 100,000-acre landscape fire," Covington said.

Federal officials released an updated size of the Wallow fire that started May 29, saying the fire has scorched 525 square miles, down from 607 square miles reported Wednesday.

Sen. John Kyl, R-Ariz., says environmental lawsuits have put the nation's forests at risk. And in places where the Apache-Sitgreaves forest had been thinned, he said, crews were better able to control the fire.

The Forest Service has set up nine restoration projects across the West designed to thin small trees. In Arizona, the Four Forests Initiative is expected to help clear about 50 square miles a year.

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