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CENTER for BIOLOGICAL DIVERSITY Because life is good

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In the forests of the Southwest, small trees dominate and comprise the vast majority of the fire risk to communities and the forest — in fact, approximately 90 percent of Southwest forest trees are smaller than 12 inches in trunk diameter. Restoration work within the wildland forest — away from communities — has two main objectives: 1) to mitigate the unnatural fire threat to the forest, and 2) to restore the forest ecosystem so that natural processes, such as fire, may be reintroduced at the landscape scale and over the long term.

The “natural processes restoration approach” proposes a conservative method of restoration, implementing treatments that preserve the greatest amount of the present biological diversity while restoring ecosystem integrity. Developed by the Center for Biological Diversity and the Southwest Forest Alliance, this approach has so far been implemented in experimental plots on the Gila Apache-Sitgreaves and Kaibab national forests in New Mexico and Arizona.

Specific goals of the natural processes restoration approach include:

  • restoring the ecological integrity of the forest, including its composition, structure, and function;
  • increasing ecosystem resilience to disturbance events, including fire, drought, insect infestation, and climate change;
  • restoring the natural distribution of tree ages, sizes, and spatial structures;
  • reducing the potential for large, high-intensity crown fires;
  • encouraging the development of a diverse understory plant community;
  • enhancing habitat for imperiled and sensitive species;
  • decreasing excessive competition among trees to protect and invigorate old-growth trees and encourage the development of old-growth structure;
  • minimizing the risks and negative effects of forest restoration.
The end goal is a forest with a diversity of structures at multiple scales, and with an increased ability to sustain a frequent fire regime. Thinning efforts should focus entirely on the small trees occurring at high density that make up the vast majority of forest-fire risk, while old, large trees — which are relatively fire resistant and extremely rare after 100 years of forest logging — are protected. It’s critical to address all the factors that have lead to the degradation of Southwest forest ecosystems, including logging large trees, livestock grazing, and fire suppression.
Photo © Robin Silver