The wildfires in Arizona's Apache-Sitgraves National Forest have sparked furious debate about forestry and conservation policies that some believe are a factor in the rise of wildfires in that state. At the heart of the debate is how best to manage the increasingly dense ponderosa pine forests in Arizona and other parts of the U.S. 

Arizona's record wildfire had consumed more than 478,000 acres as of June 15, it stretched into new mexico. remains deadly and dangerous but a break in the windy weather has helped crews fighting the blaze make some headway and allowed some residents to return to their homes. Officials said the wildfire in Arizona's eastern mountains, covering some 603-square miles, was 10 percent contained by June 13 thanks to the calmer weather, fire retardant dropped by helicopters and large air tankers, and containment of the fire with controlled burns.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture, Forest Service reports that ponderosa pine forests cover much of the higher country of Arizona from 6000 to about 8000 feet, often forming essentially pure stands covering thousands of acres. Ponderosa pines can be found in every state in the West, with the largest continuous forest found in Arizona.

Reports indicate that forests that once had 50 trees per acre now have hundreds and in some cases thousands of trees plus extremely dry bush and debris. The nature of wildfires also has changed dramatically. Fire officials report that a 30-square-mile fire was once considered huge. Today, fires five times that size or larger are more the norm.

Conditions out of anyone's control, such as prolonged dry periods have been a big factor in the Arizona fires but critics say legal battles and other disputes over old growth logging and protection of endangered species in the forest have disrupted the kind of logging that thinned the forests, leading to the current overgrowth.

Environmentalists counter that a long history of aggressive firefighting to protect the more dense forests is to blame. Also, cutting the old ponderosa pines opened the forest floor to dense young growth. Grazing eliminated the grasses that fed the frequent, low-intensity fires to which the pineland vegetation had adapted. Federal policies to quench forest fires as quickly as possible compounded the problem by promoting the buildup of brush and unnaturally thick stands of trees.

Wally Covington, director of the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University, supports a policy that essentially leaves the old growth along but harvests small-diameter trees. Covington believes the best approach is to restore more natural conditions and then reintroduce fire.

Some 35,000 acres in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest have been thinned as part of an ongoing Forest Service project to reduce the fire risk and supply local wood operations with small trees they turn into fencing, wood pellets and lumber.

Thinning of the forests is also part of a joint program by the U.S. Departments of Agriculture (USDA) and Energy (DOE). The USDA and DOE have earmarked $42 million to help fund eight research projects in bioenergy and biobased products, including the harvest, transport and preprocessing of biomass feedstocks.

These projects will help to reduce America’s dependence on imported oil by accelerating the development and commercialization of cleaner, alternative fuels that can power our vehicles and our industry,” U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu said in a statement. “Producing renewable fuels from biomass right here in the United States will improve our nation’s energy security and give us an innovative edge in the global market for clean energy technologies.”

Renewable biomass, as specified in the Biomass Crop Assistance Program, includes pre-commercial thinnings or invasive species, which would not otherwise be used for higher-value products — such as the construction of composite panels.

In related news, the USDA said it has helped remove 86,927 tons of biomass in the national forests to produce energy, as part of its Wood-to-Energy initiative launched in October 2010. The USDA is also working with the Federal Aviation Administration on a five-year plan to develop aviation fuel from forest and crop residues, as well as other feedstocks, in an effort to stabilize jet fuel costs.

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