Lauren Morales

Tuesday, Dec. 4, 2018

U.S. Forest Service under fire for cutting old-growth trees in Arizona forest

FLAGSTAFF – The decision to cut more than 1,300 old-growth trees last summer in an Arizona forest has been criticized for breaking trust with the thinning project’s backers . The rebuke comes at a time when forest management is receiving national attention for the role it plays in preventing catastrophic wildfires such as the ones in California.

The forest service cut the old trees in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest for fear of losing more to dwarf mistletoe, a parasitic plant. But only 6 percent of the trees sampled had become infested, according to data collected by Joe Trudeau with the Center for Biological Diversity and the Four Forests Restoration Initiative.

“The problem on the landscape is not an over abundance of old-growth trees,” Trudeau said. “The problem on the landscape is the density of young small diameter trees. So what we need to be doing is focusing forest restoration on the small diameter trees and the science supports that unequivocally.”

Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke criticized complaints like this saying, “radical environmental groups would rather burn down the entire forest than cut a single tree.”

The Four Forest Restoration Initiative is a partnership that includes the U.S. Forest Service, Arizona Game & Fish Department and the Grand Canyon Trust. The goal is to restore 2.4 million acres of ponderosa stretching across northern Arizona from the Grand Canyon to the New Mexico line.

The forest restoration group’s stakeholders had toured the area and later sent a letter to the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest supervisor, calling the approach to cut down so many large trees a “great concern.”

The Center for Biological Diversity dated some of the harvested trees to between 200 and 300 years old, according to the letter.

The letter also noted scientific support for retaining old-growth trees because they benefit wildlife habitat, increase genetic diversity and potentially improve fire and climate resiliency.

The Apache Sitgreaves National Forest supervisor said the agency is working on recalibrating to make sure they’re more careful about cutting an old tree.

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Little Creek TS 4FRI SHG Letter (PDF)

Little Creek TS 4FRI SHG Letter (Text)

This story is part of Elemental: Covering Sustainability , a multimedia collaboration between Cronkite News , Arizona PBS , KJZZ , KPCC , Rocky Mountain PBS and PBS SoCal .

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