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Protecting Forests from the Threat of Catastrophic Wildfires in the American West

Globally and in the western United States, wildfires are increasing in size and severity. Although fire has historically been a healthy part of forest ecology, years of fire suppression and changes in climate have disrupted natural fire processes, leading to catastrophic fires that burn bigger and hotter than historic fires.  

Suppression efforts have disrupted natural systems, resulting in uncharacteristically overgrown forests whose composition has shifted away from fire-resistant species. As global temperatures rise and precipitation patterns become more volatile, longer periods of drought will increase the threat of catastrophic wildfire.

The impacts have severe consequences on forests and wildlife that are not adapted to the frequency and intensity of these fires; it is estimated that 75 million acres of federal land are at high risk of ecological damage from catastrophic wildlife. However, the effects of catastrophic wildfire go beyond the forests themselves. Forests in the west play a critical role in providing drinking water and these fires threaten the capacity of forests to deliver water. These fires also alter soils and create erosion that impairs streams and lakes and damages water infrastructure, putting communities and economies at risk.

In an effort to address these risks, the National Forest Foundation launched the Northern Arizona Forest Fund (NAFF)-- the first effort of its kind to improve forest and watershed health in Arizona. The NAFF is a pooled fund that includes Phoenix Metropolitan area water users, the U.S. Forest Service, one of Arizona’s largest utilities, and seed-funding from CFP with the goal to protect two watersheds that provide drinking water to the communities in and around Phoenix.

Within two years of the NAFF’s launch, NFF has brought on 14 additional Phoenix area partners for a total of 20 investors in the program, including nearly all municipalities in the Phoenix Metropolitan area. Increased investment supported seven strategic projects throughout five National Forests, focusing primarily on projects that reduced wildfire risk and sedimentation into streams and rivers, as well as improved wetland and stream-side habitat. The fund has successfully created a model by which businesses and municipalities can utilize an easy and accountable mechanism to invest in the lands and watersheds that supply their drinking water.