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Recreation is the biggest cash cow for AZ Department of Interior lands, while timber lags

By: - October 17, 2019 1:00 pm

Logs in Coconino National Forest are piled and waiting to be loaded onto a truck. Photo via Coconino National Forest | Flickr

Recreation generated the most money of any activity on Department of Interior lands in Arizona, while timber harvesting, a crucial industry to wildfire prevention, brought in substantially less.

According to the Department of Interior’s 2018 Economic Report, recreation accounted for $3 billion of the $4 billion total economic output generated on DOI-managed lands in the state in 2018. All activities on DOI-managed lands contributed $2.3 billion to Arizona’s GDP. 

Meanwhile, energy- and mineral-related activities contributed $330 million. The smallest fraction of economic output on DOI land came from grazing and timber – $100 million. 

“The policies being implemented under the Trump administration continue to drive economic growth on public lands and across the economy,” according to a DOI press release announcing the annual report. The release praises President Donald Trump’s national-scale effort to open public lands to mineral and energy extraction. 

But in Arizona, recreation rakes in multiple times what extraction does, while the state’s timber industry struggles to capitalize on harvesting that could address the increasing rate of wildfires.

Arizona experienced 2,000 wildfires in 2018, according to statistics collected by the National Interagency Fire Center, which burned a total of 165,356 acres. Furthermore, according to Verisk, a company that maintains a wildfire risk management tool for insurers, there are 237,900 Arizona properties at risk, the fourth most of any state. 

Wildfires are driven in large part by forest management techniques that are used to prevent fires from starting in the first place. But fire prevention efforts inhibit healthy fires that would have occurred seasonally in many areas. This leads to overgrowth of thin, woody trees far below the canopy of forests – essentially turning swaths of forest into tinder boxes

Over time, the frequency of fires has increased dramatically, as has the occurrence of catastrophic wildfires.

Mechanical thinning is the most common way of getting rid of this woody undergrowth, but not nearly enough thinning has been done on public lands in Arizona. The Four Forests Restoration Initiative (4FRI), for example, has only thinned 100,000 acres of its million-acre goal. 

4FRI only deals with Forest Service land, not DOI land, but the program’s struggle to find logging companies for its contracts and the recent DOI figures are telling: It is difficult to monetize mechanically thinned areas on Arizona public land.

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Parker Shea

Parker Shea joins the Arizona Mirror after recently graduating from Arizona State University, where he was editor-in-chief of State Press Magazine. He hopes to one day have a career reporting on issues related to the environment. He is a daily runner and enjoys exploring the Arizona wilderness.