- Associated Press - Sunday, November 18, 2018

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) - A Forest Service decision to cut down more than 1,300 trees that were more than 150 years old because of fears of an invasive parasitic plant is being criticized as breaking trust with backers of a thinning project.

The Arizona Daily Sun reports that groups considered stakeholders of the Four Forests Restoration Initiative released a letter, calling the Forest Service’s decision to cut “old growth” trees inconsistent with a broad consensus to retain the older trees.

The overall restoration initiative is intended to create a more open forest landscape to prevent wildfires from burning into nearby communities and protect natural resources and recreation sites.

“There is broad stakeholder consensus and science support for retraining old-growth trees, including wildlife habitat, increased genetic diversity, and potential increased fire and climate resiliency,” according to the stakeholders’ letter.

Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest supervisor Steve Best said the agency is allowed to cut older trees if the forest health is at stake but must be certain it’s cutting no more than necessary.

“My intent is that it would be very, very rare that we cut a big old tree, and it seems like we cut more than we were planning on doing,” Best said.

The cutting was in a project area mainly located in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest on the east side of the state.

The stakeholders expect the Forest Service to revisit their planned treatments to modify the trees they had marked for cutting, and Best said that the agency has heard the stakeholders’ complaint.

“We’re working on recalibrating and making sure that we’re careful about cutting an old tree or not,” Best said.

The parasitic plant is small, leafless and drains the water from their host trees, which can affect tree growth and mortality, according to the Forest Service.

The dwarf mistletoe affects ponderosa pines and trees like Douglas firs more severely than other trees, the agency says.

Best said that when the plant gets to levels where it is able to spread, any younger trees below it will likely be infected.

Joe Trudeau, southwest advocate with Center for Biological Diversity, is a member of the stakeholder group and traveled to the West Escudilla Project to verify the claim of old-tree cutting.

The stakeholders say Trudeau’s data only showed a small amount of trees had levels of infection that warranted removal.

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