"In the Southwest, everybody is in a race. Everybody is trying to try to do things before the wildfire comes," said Jose "Pepe" Iñiguez, a landscape fire ecologist with the Rocky Mountain Research Station.
Before 1870, the area around the 4FRI forests looked more like savannas, Iñiguez said. Fires would run for 30 miles low to the ground, burning grasses but leaving most of the trees intact.
"We believe that it was a clumpy grouping," Iñiguez said, "which is what we're trying to restore now."
The Southwestern monsoons -- the midsummer rains -- would extinguish the fires and promote growth. There was a sudden spike in the ponderosa pine population in 1920, aided by a perfect combination of good rains and temperatures and a lack of fire control.
Today, about 90 percent of the forest is trees that grew in this era, Iñiguez said. For a long time, it wasn't a problem. In the 1940s, a small minority of people became worried that the increasingly dense forests would eventually lead to devastating fires, especially if a drought hit. But the forests continued to be thick.
These trees in the 1920s cohort, as it's called, are not adapted to high-severity fires that destroy acres, Iñiguez said. Because seeds can travel only about a tree's length, some trees must remain after a fire to keep the forest alive.
How thin is thinner?
Wilderness areas, steep slopes and other forest areas that don't have the roads for large vehicles are more likely to be treated with controlled burns, rather than mechanical thinning.
There are managers around the 4FRI area who can't really burn fires because so many people live in their areas, Iñiguez said. As populations expand, so does the size of communities along the forest edges, which leaves residents in the line of wildfires.
"Some people say the whole densification issue is not the biggest," Iñiguez added. "[Others say] the biggest is the planning, with too many people living too close to the forest. Some people say, if we could somehow address that problem, then there would be a lot more options."
At a stakeholder meeting in the town of Pinetop, Ariz., in January, environmentalists, logging groups and businesspeople met to further the process.
Despite an effort to work together, the history of strained relationships can show. The Forest Service, in its efforts to create resilient forests and communities, must also contend with its history as a pathway for logging interests across national forests.
Taylor McKinnon, an attorney with the Center for Biological Diversity, sat to the side of Pascal Berlioux, the former president of the Arizona Forest Restoration Products and currently executive director of the Eastern Arizona Counties Organization. The environmental group and the industry group mended a chilly relationship with a memorandum of understanding in 2009 to work together on 4FRI.
The Center for Biological Diversity has kept a watchful eye on what it sees as the Forest Service's role as a promoter of logging in the region.
"We try to police the Forest Service and its cutting of old growth," McKinnon said. Old-growth ponderosa pines are characterized by their yellow bark (younger trees have black bark), flat tops and straight limbs. Some are as old as 180 years. In the 4FRI treatment zone, they provide habitat for species like the endangered Mexican spotted owl, mule deer and other animals that depend on a thick canopy to survive. 4FRI team leader Henry Provencio has said the treatments will not touch old-growth trees.
So far, McKinnon said, the planning efforts for 4FRI have been largely qualitative. There need to be quantitative methods to measure the impact of thinning over such a large landscape, he said. The Center for Biological Diversity would like to see maps with the tree stand densities and to match those with wildlife habitat suitability models.