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SRP, Apple partner on Arizona forest-thinning project to combat wildfires

Apple has partnered with SRP to help the company with its sustainability projects in Arizona.

The Cupertino-based company will help SRP over the next 10 years as it thins about 30,000 acres of forest about 12 miles north of Payson, between the Verde and Salt River Watersheds.

Forest thinning, or removing trees from heavily forested areas, may sound counterintuitive for a climate and sustainability project, but there's a lot more that goes on under the surface, according to Elvy Barton.

Barton is SRP's water and forest sustainability senior manager, and she says forest thinning projects like the one Apple is helping to support are immensely helpful for the environment and wildlife:

"When we engage in forest thinning projects, we remove a number of small trees and brush," she said. "And what that does is it allows for more water through snow and rain events to actually reach the forest floor, which helps the water soak into the soil."

As water soaks into the soil, Barton said, the ground becomes a sort of sponge.

"When you have additional rain or snow and your sponge is already full, then that means that any additional water would lead into surface water runoff, which means it would flow into streams and rivers and eventually lakes and reservoirs," Barton said.

Allowing the "sponge" to fill up with water also means it replenishes some groundwater that otherwise would have been absorbed by trees or evaporated back into the atmosphere.

SRP's partnership with Apple is also not its first partnership with a major tech company. It has also partnered with Meta and Google for similar sustainability initiatives in the past.

Barton also said SRP also collaborates with Arizona State University, so they can "model how the landscape changes through the [forest] thinning," and understand the effects it will have on local wildlife and the forest at large.

The forest-thinning project also takes into account that the watershed is a critical habitat of the Mexican spotted owl, which is a threatened species. Barton said that thinning the forest will help prevent wildfires that could destroy their habitat and the habitats of other forest wildlife.

Removing trees from an overcrowded environment also increases the distance between them, which Barton says can decrease the risk of wildfires and slow their spread, in addition to producing a healthier forest ecosystem overall.

"When you have a healthier, more resilient forest, that also means that they're able to soak up more carbon over time and store that in the healthier resilient trees that are less likely to succumb to disease or insect mortalities or drought effects as well."

The partnership between SRP and Apple has benefits outside of the forest as well, said Barton.

She said that Payson received about 3,000 acre-feet of water from the watershed where SRP is already working on forest thinning, and that the city has been a strong partner to SRP over the last 10 years.

"This is just another example of how partnering with cities and others can really move these projects forward and really protect not only the town of Payson's water supplies but also the surrounding community and infrastructure."

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Nate Engle was an intern at KJZZ in 2024.