An “unprecedented” plan to reinvent the timber industry and thereby thin millions of acres of dangerously thick forests in Northern Arizona won approval Thursday by the Arizona Board of Supervisors Association.
The proposal represents the first broad agreement on the role of the timber industry in harvesting the small trees that have turned some 2.6 million acres of Arizona forests into a tinderbox that threatens disaster for many communities.
“This agreement is unprecedented,” said Ethan Aumack, who serves as both chair of a governor’s task force on forest health and director of restoration programs for the Grand Canyon Trust.
“We’ve never come close to this kind of agreement before. If this can’t get us to where we need to be, it’s hopeless,” he said.
Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin said the agreement is “historic” because key environmental groups have agreed to a crucial role for the timber industry in restoring the forest to health for the first time in a quarter century.
“We’ve finally done enough work and had enough meetings that everyone said we’re willing to trust one another enough to try this – because we know we have to do something. We can’t let it burn and we can’t afford to clean it” without the timber industry, said Martin.
County governments have lined up behind the plan, based on a study estimating the supply of wood from pines smaller than 16 inches in diameter totals at least 840 million cubic feet.
The group urged the U.S. Forest Service to award a 20-year contract to give a planned Winslow sawmill the right to annually thin 30,000 acres of overgrown ponderosa pine forests.
The small trees would be cut into chips aligned to produce a high-tech, high-quality form of plywood. The waste from the branches and tips would be used to produce electricity in an adjacent biofuel power plant.
Such an agreement would triple the current rate of forest thinning intended to protect forest communities from catastrophic wildfires, like the 500,000-acre Rodeo-Chediski blaze.
The current forest harbors perhaps 1,000, small, struggling trees per acre — so tightly packed they remain vulnerable to crown fires that can burn so hot that they can sterilize the soil.
Forest managers want to return natural fire cycles to the ecosystem, but the forest is so packed with fuel that prescribed fires can easily escape control with devastating consequences. Unfortunately, hand-thinning costs more than $1,000 per acre. The plan approved this week by the county supervisors association and separately by the Gila County Board of Supervisors grows out of a study by Northern Arizona University researchers, environmentalists, timber industry officials and forest managers. The once bitterly divided groups studied 2.6 million acres of forested land stretching from Flagstaff to Alpine and including all of Rim Country.
The participants agreed that 40 percent of the land could be mechanically thinned by a retooled timber industry. They agreed that another 26 percent of the land was too steep or delicate for mechanical thinning. They couldn’t agree on how to handle about a third of the land, due largely to continued disagreement about how many of the big trees to leave.
However, all sides in the study agreed on the value of thinning on perhaps a million acres, more than enough to award a 20-year contract, said Martin.
“We can double the amount of thinning done annually and still stay within the boundaries of that consensus,” said Martin.
“This represents an agreement to use the economy to restore the forest — it’s not about re-establishing the timber industry — it’s about saving the forest.”
She said the counties hope that the broad support for the plan will prompt the Forest Service to move quickly to negotiate a long-term contract by guaranteeing the proposed mill a certain amount of wood annually from trees in the 5- to 15-inch diameter category.
Aumack said the agreement represents the most promising single moment in the 15 years he has represented conservationists in the effort to restore old-growth forests. “I would not have spent the hours and days and months and years on this if it was an illusion — none of us would have,” he said. He noted many details remain to be negotiated but “we’ve never before had agreement at this level of detail and at the scale we’re talking about —with a recognition that the industry can and should be a significant participant in this state.”