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Salt River Project Enacts Strategic Forest Thinning

June 27, 2022
Government agencies, Arizona companies work to help prevent forest wildfires.

As fire crews continue to battle the Pipeline Fire and other wildfires around the state, SRP has joined with local, state and federal agencies to address the issue of unhealthy forests and devastating wildfires.

Strategic forest thinning is currently underway in the East Clear Creek watershed, which supplies water to the town of Payson and the Valley in a partnership with Salt River Project (SRP), the U.S. Forest Service (USFS), Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management (DFFM), and the Town of Payson to help prevent catastrophic wildfires.

The Baker Hazardous Fuels Reduction Project covers a 1,010-acre area of the Cragin Watershed Protection Project (CWPP), which supplies water to the C.C. Cragin Reservoir. Water from the reservoir is pumped  over the Mogollon Rim to the East Verde River and to a pipeline that supplies Cragin water to the Town of Payson. Water from Cragin also serves the Phoenix metropolitan area.

The strategic forest thinning efforts will help reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfire while also protecting nearby communities and habitat for wildlife from the impacts of wildfire. In addition, the thinning protects the watershed and nearby infrastructure that provide water to the Phoenix metropolitan area.

“Water stored at Cragin is a critical piece of Payson’s water resources portfolio and is the cornerstone of the Town’s long-term sustainability. It’s imperative that we manage the watershed today to maintain its viability for future generations,” said Tanner Henry, Town of Payson Water Superintendent. 

The project is a priority area for the CWPP because it is home to the Baker Butte Lookout tower. The Baker Butte Lookout tower will benefit from greater visibility to spot wildfires in and around the CWPP area, which is crucial to wildfire reduction.

“SRP is proud to be a part of this critical partnership to help ensure a healthy forest and watershed for our customers in the Valley as well as the Town of Payson,” said Elvy Barton, SRP Forest Health Management Principal. “Thinning projects like this not only allow for a decrease in the wildfire risk, it also provides for an environment for healthier trees that will be resilient to climate change effects, including drought.”

In 2014, SRP, USFS, U.S. Bureau of Reclamation (BOR), and the Town of Payson signed a proclamation and Memorandum of Understanding to launch the CWPP. The CWPP was a collaborative effort by SRP, BOR, Town of Payson, National Forest Foundation, and USFS to conduct an Environmental Assessment (EA) to reduce forest fuels on the watershed.

This project is the first area of the CWPP to begin treatment utilizing a new partnership with DFFM. DFFM, via a Good Neighbor Authority Agreement with the USFS, will manage the strategic forest thinning work. DFFM has hired contractors to implement the strategic thinning work that started in May.

"Baker is an ideal example of a high-priority, wildfire risk reduction project that improves forest health, wildlife habitat and watershed function. The project demonstrates how Good Neighbor Authority expeditiously and effectively treats acres on federal land in Arizona. And Baker is just the start. As we utilize GNA more, the State’s partnership with the Coconino National Forest, Salt River Project, and other partners in the C.C. Cragin watershed will become increasingly effective,” said John Richardson, DFFM Assistant State Forester.

Project benefits include:

  • Reduces wildfire risk
  • Protects water supplies, infrastructure, and water quality
  • Protects Mexican-spotted owl habitat
  • Supports rural and local businesses

The project is also part of the US Department of Agriculture’s 10-year strategy aimed at addressing the wildfire crisis by treating critical firesheds with the help of partners. Firesheds are large, forested landscapes with a high likelihood that an ignition could expose communities and infrastructure to wildfire. Payson and nearby communities are within one of the top firesheds in the country.

“The goal of this project is to reduce hazardous fuel loads, which will prevent high intensity fires from coming in and destroying the infrastructure,” said Shana Fitzpatrick, timber staff officers with the Coconino National Forest. “Work can be very expensive and complicated and partners can help provide personnel expertise and funding to help get these projects done.”

In 2021, Governor Doug Ducey signed the US$ 100 million HB 2001, which includes US$ 25 million for the Arizona Healthy Forest Initiative. An initiative designed to reduce wildfire fuels around communities and increase partnerships. 

That is why state and federal agencies along with companies and non-governmental organizations have committed to investing in forest restoration through partnerships, education and supporting industry.

The forested lands of northern Arizona have been hit by devastating wildfires and are primed for more infernos like those that impacted California and Colorado. Many forested lands in northern Arizona have thousands of trees per acre and have suffered from extreme drought, which can fuel large wildfires that are uncontrollable with catastrophic impacts.

SRP manages the water supply for much of the Valley – most of which comes from 8.3 million acres of land in northern Arizona. Snowfall and rain provide the water that travels through the watershed into SRP reservoirs, which is then delivered to 2.5 million homes and businesses in the Phoenix metropolitan area via an extensive network of canals.

For as little as US$ 3 a month, SRP customers and others are encouraged to donate to the strategic thinning efforts through the SRP Healthy Forest Initiative. One-hundred percent of the contributions will go toward forest thinning projects and SRP will match every dollar you contribute up to US$200,000 per year.

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