Mission: Save Rim Country Forests

Government leaders, ranchers and users gather to sway plan to restore used, abused national forests


Blessing or curse? Burned areas like this one near Highway 260 initially appear devastated, but create open spaces that foster grass, flowers and diversity.

Blessing or curse? Burned areas like this one near Highway 260 initially appear devastated, but create open spaces that foster grass, flowers and diversity. |

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photo

Peter Aleshire/Roundup

Forests with 50-100 trees per acre that evolved to withstand periodic, low-intensity ground fires now have 1,000-2,000 trees per acre and are vulnerable to major firestorms that could threaten Rim communities.

photo

Peter Aleshire/Roundup

Returning fire to forest ecosystems produces greater biological diversity.

“A regular person is afraid of government,” said rancher Bunny Dryden as she scanned a room crowded with government officials from every imaginable Rim Country agency.

“The government has such power and there are such repercussions — that a sensible person is afraid to step up to the plate,” she added, reflecting the experience of many ranchers, landowners and loggers at a meeting last week in the Pine Community

Center convened to help the U.S. Forest Service begin undoing a century of mismanagement of the national forests.

“But if you don’t step up — don’t get involved — then you’re just a fence-rider, with not much to say,” she concluded.

Dryden summed up the view of many of the ranchers, bikers, hikers and other nongovernment participants in an ambitious, vital, ever so slightly chaotic effort to create an ongoing conversation between the community and the Forest Service. Among other things, the long, slow process launched last week should help the Forest Service revise its badly outdated, quarter-century-old plan for the Tonto National Forest.

Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin moderated the day-long organizational meeting last Thursday that drew about 60 public officials and representatives of various groups. They all set themselves to the perplexing task of helping the Forest Service come up with a plan that satisfies community needs, without getting once again wounded by lawyers and put out of its misery by judges.

The participants all agreed on the urgent need. A forest that once had 50 to 100 trees per acre now has 1,000 to 2,000 trees per acre. Soil that once had 5 to 10 percent organic material now has barely half a percent and perhaps 1,000 miles of once-year-round streams running off the Rim have all but dried up. Meanwhile, the timber industry has vanished, ranchers are barely holding on and the threat of massive, devastating wildfires menaces every Rim community.

“It’s the result of a century of failed federal policy,” said Martin.

Biologists blame the current condition of the forest mostly on a century of clear-cutting, over-grazing and fire suppression. The combination of all those human decisions compounded by drought has resulted in the current, dramatically overgrown forest. Ironically, it has also impacted the logging and ranching operations the previous management was supposed to benefit.

“No one here has ever even seen a healthy forest — one you can actually see through,” said Mike Brandt, with the Pine-Strawberry Fire District — charged with protecting one of the most wildfire menaced communities in the nation.

Ira Gibel, with Tonto Search and Rescue and a retired teacher, agreed. “People live here their whole lives and don’t even know it’s an unhealthy situation. We’ve got too many straws in the same glass — as the saying goes. I have one acre and I cut 400 trees — and Mike (Brandt) said I still had 80 trees too many.”

Walter Smith, 80, and a lifelong resident, said “no one here knows what this forest used to look like. Up on the Rim, we could ride at a trot for miles, without once getting whipped in the face with a branch.”

Martin noted that her grandmother referred to the Rim Country as a ponderosa savannah and could fish for trout year-round in dozens of streams that now only carry floodwater.

She noted that remote areas of the forest that haven’t been repeatedly logged and grazed and protected from fire hold about 9 pounds of organic material for every 100 pounds of dirt. Across millions of acres of forest, organic material amounts to less than half a pound in 100 pounds of dirt. Even at 5 percent organic material, soil can hold twice its weight in water. Without the organic material, most of the water simply runs off. The lack of organics in the soil largely accounts for the drying up of a thousand miles of Rim Country streams, since the soil can no longer soak up rain and release it gradually.

The people gathered for a long day of introductions and generalizations all hoped to find a way to restore that vanished forest — while still accommodating an onslaught of off-road vehicles, campers, trout fishermen, loggers, ranchers, miners, elk hunters, nature photographers, sight-seers, hikers and mountain bikers.

Traditionally, the Forest Service has pasted together a forest plan often focused on key goals like “getting the cut out,” since for decades the timber industry provided the bulk of the Forest Service’s funding. But as the condition of the forest deteriorated after a century of management as a vast tree farm and as competing recreational uses mounted, the successive Forest Service plans each died a death of a thousand cuts, followed by ritual burial by lawyers.

As a result, the Tonto National Forest hasn’t updated its current overall management plan for more than 20 years. These days, much of the Forest Service budget goes to a desperate and near-hopeless effort to fight potentially massive wildfires in a tinderbox forest or on legal defense of salvage timber sales, road closures, fire management and dwindling endangered species.

“None of the forest plans are really working and none of their planning efforts are really working,” said Martin, who served as the moderator for the discussion. “We’re talking about a 25-year-old plan they can’t update because they can never get out of court.”

In theory, the answer seems simple enough. Re-invent the timber industry to make plywood, pressed-wood and wood pellets from the 6-14 inch diameter trees now choking the forest by the millions. Add in controlled burns on a massive scale to return the forest to something like its original condition, in which clusters of giant ponderosas, stretches of aspen, fringes of oak and great expanses of grassland provided ecological diversity. Although fires burned through that ancestral forest every five or six years, they mostly crept along the ground consuming downed wood and brush at a pace that would present far less danger to forest communities.

Top managers from the Forest Service, all hailed the meeting.

“To be simplistic, it’s about communicating better,” said Ed Armenta, head ranger for the Payson Ranger District.

“Plan revisions have been in a stop and start mode for political reasons,” conceded Gene Blankenbaker, head ranger for the Tonto National Forest.

“America has reached the point where everyone is yelling at each other, like we’re on the Jerry Springer Show,” said Gary Roberts, fire management and prevention officer for the Payson Ranger District.

Jim Sprinkle, with the University of Arizona, also welcomed the conversation but added, “we need some assurance the Forest Service is really interested in this, not just a rubber stamp.”

Payson Mayor Kenny Evans observed that half the battle is to educate residents, but the harder struggle is to manage the impact of the weekend visitors. “Those of us who live in the forest on the weekends are overwhelmed by outsiders, and their forest etiquette is not what you would like.”

Peggy Randall, whose grandparents established a ranch in the area and who still manages a ranch today, observed, “I just want my great grandkids to be able to go out into the forest and to eat range-fed beef.”

Martin warned the participants to prepare themselves for a years-long process, which will create a permanent framework to make sure that the community can influence the Forest Service’s decisions in a way that will produce a healthy forest.

As a start, the group set up informal working committees to work toward another meeting in February.

One group will discuss both thinning the forest and reinventing the timber industry so that a new generation of mills and power plants can make use of the small trees to produce both fuel and wood products. Currently, the Forest Service is spending millions to laboriously hand-thin buffer zones around the major Rim communities, but can’t afford to hand thin the millions of acres further out.

A second committee will talk about ways to turn the East Verde River into a world class trout stream — with accompanying opportunities for hikers and campers. Currently, the East Verde often nearly dries up in certain times of the year and in late summer gets too warm for trout. However, the planned release into the river of water from the Blue Ridge Reservoir by the Salt River Project could make the flows much colder and more reliable in the East Verde.

Another committee will tackle the issues raised by the plan to build a pipeline along the East Verde River to deliver 3,500 acre-feet of water annually to Rim communities.

A fourth committee will discuss transportation — which mostly means roads, road closures and off-road vehicles. All the national forests in the country are currently considering a plan to restrict cross-country use of off-road vehicles, to prevent widespread soil erosion and disturbance of wildlife.

“The goal here is to decide what we want to do with our forest. Does that mean (the Forest Service) will take our advice? Maybe not ever. Maybe every time,” said Martin. “But they have big hoops they have to jump through — maybe we can turn those hoops into filters — to filter out some of the BS — theirs and ours.”

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