Resolution, Plans Target Improving Forests

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Plans made over the last eight months, and a resolution passed by the council last week target improving the health of the Mogollon Rim's forests.

The plan, the Regional Payson Area Project Conceptual Forest Health and Fire Risk Reduction Plan, was presented by the RPAP consultant, Flagstaff Safety Systems, at a workshop Jan. 16.

The town council, at the regular meeting that followed, adopted a resolution declaring an emergency due to the insect- and disease-infested, drought-impacted and fire-damaged trees. Gila and four other counties, plus a number of municipalities are also passing the resolution. It asks the responsible agencies and offices to use all the resources necessary to execute forest health plans to alleviate the state of emergency.

Additionally, the resolution seeks to have the Forest Service create a treated defensible space around high-risk areas of the perimeter boundaries of the town.

Jim Wheeler, of Flagstaff Safety Systems, made the work session presentation on the RPAP plan.

The company was hired as the consultant for RPAP in April 2002. The plan it has prepared will:

  • Provide historical and scientific references of the ecological condition;
  • Conduct a preliminary hazard risk assessment;
  • Provide organizational, financial and operational recommendations for the fire hazard reduction and mitigation;
  • Recommend current short term and future mid-term measures to continue the effort currently under way.

"The goal is to clean up the forests in the 450 square miles of the plan area and make them safer and healthier," Payson Fire Chief John Ross said at the work session. "The plan can also be submitted with grant applications for additional funds (to pay for the work that needs to be done)."

Wheeler worked with representatives from 25 Rim country communities and a committee of 20, including Rim country fire and other agency professionals, plus concerned citizens.

"Today we have unnatural, unhealthy and unsustainable forests," Wheeler said.

When the forests were healthy, there were about 20 trees per acre; now there are several hundred per acre, he said.

"Picture a football field, that is about the size of an acre, then picture 20 trees on it. Not evenly spaced, but in clumps -- five here, 10 to 15 over there," Wheeler said.

Actions recommended to create healthy forests include:

  • Collaborative relationships must be formed to create new opportunities for technology, economic development and synergy to reduce risk;
  • Forests should be thinned using a restoration-based approach to fuel removal and fuel modification;
  • Innovative structural and policy approaches should be developed to facilitate project implementation;
  • The RPAP should work to integrate urban interface plans with existing wildland plans;
  • Financial support for restoration projects should be sought through a collaborative approach;
  • Pursue community outreach and education;
  • Find innovative ways to use the byproducts of forest restoration projects -- find ways to use the trees cut as part of the forest thinning.

Wheeler stressed that fuel reduction work needs to be done where it can be done.

"Don't wait until you can start on the southwest side, where the prevailing winds come from during fire season."

Although certain areas will be of high priority from a fire-risk-reduction standpoint, work must be done everywhere. Work first where it is easiest (town-owned property) to do so and tie projects together in the future, Wheeler said.

Payson Mayor Ken Murphy asked Wheeler about the obstacles that must be overcome to put the plan into effect.

Wheeler said the obstacles are: money, government regulations, groups that sue to stop the work and methodology conflicts.

Regarding the groups that file lawsuits to stop forest health projects, Wheeler said, "Get gunslinger. Obstructionist groups love to sue. I wonder if they've ever been sued?"

A progress report, along with cost estimates on the RPAP forest health plan will be presented in February, Ross said.

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