Forests in the Southwest collected some $40 million in federal stimulus funding, including $4 million that went to the Tonto National Forest and $17 million to the Apache Sitgreaves.
The federal, job-producing stimulus program proved a windfall for two of the forests that comprise Rim Country, although Coconino National Forest came up with nothing, according to figures released this week by the regional office.
A total of 44 projects received a total of $40 million, including $3.1 million to thin overgrown brush and trees that posed a serious fire danger to 13 different Rim Country communities.
All told, those “wildland urban interface” projects thinned some 8,000 acres on the outskirts of forest settlements.
Other Tonto National Forest projects funded included an effort to root out two invasive grasses at Saguaro Lake and the Salt River Recreation area. Such non-native grasses can easily catch fire and kill saguaro and other cacti, which have little protection from fire since the Sonoran Desert lacks grasses that would normally carry such ground fires.
In addition, the federal stimulus money provided more rest rooms and other facilities at recreation sites on the lower Salt River near Phoenix, which attract up to 50,000 visitors each week.
However, the Apache-Sitgreaves managed to lay claim to nearly half of the money allocated to the region. The sprawling forest runs from just east of Highway 260 on top of the Rim all the way to New Mexico, and has taken the lead on finding ways to work out long-term harvesting agreements with timber companies to thin large stretches of forest.
The projects funded with stimulus money in the Apache-Sitgreaves Forest included $2.4 million for the White Mountain Stewardship contract to provide wood to loggers to make lumber pallets, wood pellets for stoves and power generation.
The grant will underwrite the thinning of 3,200 acres. Another $5-million grant will help lay the groundwork for a 10-year contract covering 7,625 acres with timber companies that can use small trees.
Two other grants totaling $1.5 million will pay for restoration work on the White Mountain Apache Reservation and elsewhere to restore 5,000 acres charred by the Rodeo-Chediski Fire.
The grant noted the projects will hire as many tribal members as possible, since the unemployment rate on the reservation tops 80 percent.
In addition, the Apache-Sitgreaves Forest got $150,000 to improve the Rim View Trail just 30 miles north of Payson, one of the most scenic and popular hiking trails in the state.
Region-wide, the grants “will restore forests and grasslands, reduce wildfire risks, develop wood to energy technology and improve public facilities while providing private sector jobs,” said Regional Forester Corbin Newman.
All told, the federal stimulus legislation included a huge lump sum for the Department of Agriculture, which administers the National Forest Service, said Dave Clark, a spokesman in the regional office in Albuquerque.
That included $27 billion for “rural development,” $21 billion for nutrition, $1 billion for farm investments, $272 million for infrastructure and $1.5 billion for conservation and forestry.
Wildfire buffers will be created
The unexpected windfall helped the local forests make welcome progress on a desperate effort to create wildfire buffer zones around Rim communities.
A century of grazing and fire suppression has spurred a dramatic increase in tree densities across some five million acres of forested lands between Flagstaff and Alpine. Tree densities have increased from 30 to 50 per acre on the average to more like 800 to 1,500 trees per acre in many areas.
Studies on fire danger facing Rim Country after the massive, 500,000-acre Rodeo-Chediski Fire led to the development of a regional plan to reduce fire danger and protect forest communities.
The Forest Service has been struggling to implement that plan, hand-thinning thousands of acres every summer on the outskirts of developed areas and often letting fires further from towns burn whenever conditions allow.
Thanks to the preliminary work done on that overall fire protection plan, the Tonto National Forest had already completed the studies on thousands of acres of forest in need of thinning when Congress began handing out huge slabs of money in an effort to give the floundering economy a jump start to keep the Great Recession from descending into a new Great Depression.
“When the Recovery and Reinvestment Act came out and Washington asked us for potential projects, the forests pulled these projects off the shelf and submitted them,” said Clark.
Grants create jobs
The grants were supposed to create as many jobs as quickly as possible, so projects that could start immediately went to the head of the line. Ironically enough, in the Tonto National Forest, that meant initially using the crews of private contractors who had done thinning projects for the past couple of years. Many of those private thinning crews all set to start work were comprised of workers from El Salvador.
“We had to use contractors already on the list,” said Clark, although the federal money also provided the funds to hire additional crews and contractors later in the season.
The Apache-Sitgreaves Forest grabbed the great bulk of the funding, thanks to an active program seeking to make use of the timber industry to restore and thin forest lands.
Throughout the region, the timber industry has all but shut down due to a lack of the big trees on which its profit margin once depended and a snarl of appeals and lawsuits which the Forest Service often loses when judges rule they haven’t followed their own rules.
The projects funded in the Apache-Sitgreaves include:
• $1.2 million to provide new facilities at the Hoyer Campground.
• $132,000 to cut down dead and dying trees that pose a hazard to visitors at several sites.
• $760,000 to resurface 19 miles of roads, including Forest Roads 249, 249E and 24.
• $1 million worth of improvements to facilities and campgrounds at Big Lake.
• $56,000 for improvements to 12.5 miles of roadways along the Black River.
• $416,000 to maintain 26 miles worth of hiking and ATV trails
• $150,000 to make improvements on the Rim Vista Trail on top of the Rim.
• $800,000 to make improvements in the sewage treatment system that serves the Hoyer Campground, which is currently based on a 40-year-old lagoon system the Forest Service closed down three years ago.
• $400,000 to tear down five buildings at various sites.
• $350,000 worth of improvements to facilities at the Luna Lake Recreation Area.
• $375,000 for a wastewater collection system at Big Lake.
• $750,000 to improve rest room facilities at Big Lake.
• $722,000 to install a new water system for the Water Canyon Administrative Site.
• $130,000 to make improvements at the Buffalo Crossing Recreation facility on the East Fork of the Black River.
• $100,000 to do trail maintenance on the White Mountain Apache Reservation.
• $1.4 million to thin 3,000 acres in the Brookbank area near Heber-Overgaard.
• $593,000 to thin overgrown forest to create a fire buffer around the community of Nutrioso, which has 289 year-round residents.
• $1.2 million to slow the spread of pinyon-juniper into grassland areas.