The effort to keep wildfires from swallowing up Rim Country communities got a big boost this week, with word that the Forest Service will get $3.1 million in federal stimulus money to thin some 8,000 acres of forest.
The Payson Ranger District has worked aggressively to get thousands of acres ready to thin in hopes of snagging stimulus money to protect Rim communities.
“We’re the only forest to get stimulus money for firebreaks in the Southwest,” said Tonto Ranger District head ranger Ed Armenta.
“It had a lot to do with the cooperation we had with communities around here and with Gila County that have contributed their own dollars in the past. It hasn’t gone unnoticed,” by the grant givers, he said.
He said the project will protect 13 different communities. The district will move to start spending the job-creating stimulus money almost immediately.
Armenta said the money will let local contractors employ up to 100 people. The district has spent millions in the recent years to create “fuel breaks” around Payson, Pine, Strawberry and other communities.
In addition, Armenta predicted the district will need to hire another contractor with perhaps 40 workers to do additional work.
“We’d like to see if we can do it locally and generate some local jobs through these contracts,” said Armenta. “That’s what the stimulus package is all about.”
The money for the Payson District came from a $1.1 billion fund set up as part of the stimulus package for the Forest Service. About half of the money was set aside for fire prevention and the other half for roads, trails and facilities in the forests.
“The funds will immediately create jobs in land stewardship, infrastructure repair and conversion, and the production of energy from wood,” said Forest Service Chief Gail Kimbell.
The $3.1 million grant will enable crews to revisit some 5,000 acres worth of buffer zones on the outskirts of Pine, Strawberry and Payson.
The crews will cut and pile brush and trees that have sprouted since the initial thinning several years ago. Once those piles have dried out a year from now, Forest Service crews will go back and burn them.
In addition, the Forest Service will finish up environmental reviews as quickly as possible to clear the way to do the first round of thinning on the outskirts of the small enclaves of Christopher Creek and others surrounded by thickly overgrown forests.
Armenta said that at the moment, Christopher Creek confronts the greatest danger from wildfires of any community in the Rim Country, because the thick, overgrown forest all but engulfs the town — with no buffer zone yet created.
A century of logging, grazing and fire suppression has led to a dramatic increase in tree densities on millions of Rim Country acres.
Pre-settlement forests with 100 trees per acre that once actually benefited from low-intensity ground fires every five years or so are now jammed with about 1,000 trees per acre. The resulting spindly, drought-plagued, tightly packed “doghair thickets” of small trees poses a severe danger of runaway wildfires in the tinder dry.
The thinning project in the Christopher Creek area has been delayed for months as a result of the discovery of nesting pairs of Mexican Spotted Owls and other sensitive or endangered species in the area listed for thinning.
Armenta said the district will take advantage of a provision in the federal law that makes it possible to dramatically shorten the consulting process for fire protection projects on the outskirts of settled areas. Normally, the law requires the Forest Service to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and hold public hearings if a project will affect an endangered species.
Biologists for the Forest Service and the Fish and Wildlife Service met last week to strike a deal to get the stalled Christopher Creek thinning project under way. Armenta said the quickest solution might be to leave patches of unthinned forest in places like Gordon Canyon, where the owls have been nesting.
“What I see is a golden opportunity to treat some hazardous fuels in this region. We’re going to have to modify some of our proposed actions so we can just move forward,” said Armenta.
Armenta said the foresters will also have to plan the thinning project in Christopher Creek to leave trees larger than 16 inches in diameter and protect the creek from erosion.
The stimulus money will pay for six different thinning projects, ranging in size from 335 acres to 3,205 acres. The cost per acre differs significantly depending on whether crews are merely re-thinning an area or tackling the job for the first time.
Tonto National Forest Supervisor Gene Blankenbaker said, “When the call came, our folks were ready. The environmental project pre-work has been done and they are ready to roll.”