Cuts to forest-fire program could be expensive down the road

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APACHE-SITGREAVES NATIONAL FOREST, Ariz. -- It is a program credited with saving homes and communities when wildfires swept through Eastern Arizona this past summer.

But as Patti Kirkpatrick tells us, even a proven track record of saving money and property is not enough to keep it off the congressional chopping block.

Wink Criegler, whose ranch survived the Wallow Fire, knows what that could mean.

“You just kept seeing these big plumes, kept getting blacker,” she recalled.

The flames died out as they approached her property. Criegler credits effective land management, including grazing.

“And also a plan to remove any ladder fuels and a fuel reduction plan," she added. "We felt very very safe here.”

Criegler had cleared the surrounding forest of small trees and undergrowth, on her own, doing what the federal government is trying to do on a large scale.

“So there is a program, a federal program -- Hazardous Fuel Reduction Program -- that thins forests to try to remove the smaller, less-valuable wood out of the forest," explained Pat Graham of the Nature Conservancy.

According to Graham, the idea is to return forests to a more natural condition, where small-scale fires regularly cleared that low growth.

“It was more meadow- like, so when the fires would go through, it would be like burning grass and low intensity, the thick bark on the bottom of the trees would prevent them from burning," Graham said.

That is not what most U.S. forests look like now.

As we logged large trees and suppressed fires, the undergrowth filled in, and that, Graham said, causes problems.

“When you get a lot of small fuel in there, it works its way up, gets into the branches of the trees and it lights the trees on fire and especially in drought-like conditions, that fire can spread, Graham explained. "It becomes uncontrollable."

That is why the federal government has been sponsoring the Hazardous Fuels Reduction Program, clearing out undergrowth in national forests. It's a massive undertaking.

“In the United States forests, there is an area the size of the state of California needs to be treated, needs to be thinned," Graham said.

But that thinning costs money, which is now tight in Washington. There is a proposal to cut $100 million from the program. That's a quarter of its funding.

Graham understands why the program may face cuts, and says everyone knows the federal government cannot foot the bill alone. He also knows with only 3 percent of the forests cleared, cuts now could cost big later.

"The amount of money that is spent in Arizona fighting fires is $4 for $1 that is spent thinning our forests," he said.

So far the cuts have only been proposed.

Graham says the hope is that private businesses will get involved, ultimately reducing the need for federal help.