Local government officials are outraged over a lawsuit filed by a conservation group that would "prevent harmful salvage logging" in the Rodeo-Chediski fire area.
The Santa Fe-based Forest Conservation Council (FCC) says it filed the lawsuit in Federal District Court in Phoenix, Jan. 9, "in response to the Forest Service's decision to illegally exempt the salvage logging from environmental reviews required by the National Environmental Policy Act and National Historic Preservation Act."
The Rodeo-Chediski Fire, the largest in Arizona history, scorched more than 460,000 acres last summer.
Reaction to the lawsuit from the Eastern Arizona Counties Organization (ECO) and other local leaders was swift and forceful. The ECO, an organization formed in 1993 by Apache, Gila, Graham, Greenlee and Navajo counties, objected to the lawsuit "in the strongest terms possible."
Ron Christensen, Gila County District 1 supervisor and chairman of the ECO board of directors, was among those speaking out.
"This use of our courts by outsiders to achieve political ends is outrageous and totally unacceptable to our communities and citizens suffering from the aftermath of the Rodeo-Chediski Fire," Christensen said. "This lawsuit, if successful, will add to the growing list of ecological and economic catastrophes that our people and businesses are suffering."
But the FCC claims that the Forest Service has used wildfires as an excuse for widespread commercial logging throughout the West for years, viewing the trees "as quick and easy profits for its allies in the timber industry."
FCC Conservation Director John Talberth says salvage logging is harmful and the Forest Service knows it.
"Forest Service research has demonstrated that salvage logging exacerbates damage to soils, wildlife habitat and water quality and that dead standing trees burned by fires are essential for speedy recovery of forest ecosystems," Talberth said.
Tonto impact minimal
Stanton Florea, a spokesperson for the Tonto National Forest, said environmental evaluations are currently under way and that no salvage operations have begun in the Tonto National Forest.
He also pointed out that only a small portion of the Tonto was impacted by the fire.
"Of that burned area, so little of it was actually the Tonto," Florea said. "We lost about 12,000 acres on the Tonto -- that extreme northeast corner. And many of those were where we treated along the road and did a burnout operation to create a wider fire line to protect that area."
The Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest lost 120,000 acres, while the Fort Apache Indian Reservation took the hardest hit with more than 300,000 acres affected by the inferno.
"They've already begun salvage logging on the reservation," Florea said.
Additional information from the Forest Service has been hard to come by, and Dr. Martin Moore, ECO executive director, says that's not surprising.
"If the ... Forest Service is not talking, that probably means their attorneys have said, ‘Don't talk.' They're under a gag order from their attorneys," Moore said.
Moore added it is his understanding that the Forest Service has agreed to give the FCC two weeks notice before any trees are cut.
"That will give them time to file preliminary injunctions with the court," he said.
Delays caused by the lawsuit are damaging for two reasons, Moore said.
"If those trees don't come out, they're going to fall," he said. "So it's a huge safety issue."
In fact, Moore's understanding is that most of the trees that will be removed on Forest Service land are those that are near recreational trails, roads and private homes.
The legal action also impacts the commercial value of burned trees in the affected areas.
"There are some smaller trees out there that are already rotting," Moore said.
Safety a subterfuge
The FCC has no problem with cutting trees that pose a safety hazard, according to Talberth.
"The safety hazard zone is defined as anything that can fall immediately on structures, and we have no problem with those (trees)," Talberth said. "In fact, we've been saying all along if they want to go ahead with the project for safety reasons, we're totally supportive of that. The problem is that they're using the loophole in the law that allows them to cut trees for safety reasons to justify a much larger project hundreds and hundreds of feet back into the forest."
Talberth also challenged the charge that his organization has no ties to Arizona and should therefore mind its own business.
"We're an organization that works on national forest protection nationwide -- every state in the nation where there's national forest," he said. "We have thousands of members including dozens of members in Arizona who regularly visit the Rim and own second homes up there. We're clearly not outsiders."
State of Emergency
In a related move, the five counties that comprise the ECO recently declared a state of emergency because of what they termed "the rapidly deteriorating conditions of their forests, woodlands, and rangelands."
In addition to catastrophic fires, drought, tree insect and disease epidemics and vegetation overcrowding were cited as contributing factors. The declaration calls on state and federal authorities to take immediate action.
Meanwhile, other recovery measures are under way in the areas affected by the Rodeo-Chediski Fire. The National Resources Conservation Service has brought engineers from three states to Overgaard to work with landowners to prevent erosion and sedimentation damage that can occur when vegetation is destroyed on steeply sloping forest land.
The primary conservation measures for fire recovery include seeding, mulching, straw wattles, straw bale diversions, and straw bale check dams.
As of Dec. 5, more than 14,500 pounds of seed, 14,000 bales of mulch, and 3,800 feet of straw wattles had been used by landowners affected by the fire.
The conservation service plans to maintain a recovery information center in Overgaard until March 30. The center's toll-free number is (866) 889-5405.