Environmentalists and loggers have agreed on a groundbreaking plan to use a reinvented timber industry to restore forest health by thinning 750,000 acres of dangerously overgrown central Arizona forests.
The unprecedented cooperative effort has resulted in completion of a final outline of the plan after nearly a decade of effort, said Bonnie Stevens, with Northern Arizona University’s Ecological Restoration Institute.
“We are very hopeful and we are very enthusiastic,” said Taylor McKinnon, public lands campaign director for the Centers for Biological Diversity.
“What this means is we’re all focused on the same goal,” said Etan Aumack, of the Grand Canyon Trust.”
“These efforts will set forests and local economies on a path of recovery and will leave future generations with forested landscapes that will become assets, not liabilities,” said Molly Pitts, who works for the Northern Arizona Wood Products Association and serves as co-chair of the Governor’s Forest Health Council.
The coalition of local officials known as the 4 Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) includes timber industry representatives and forest experts. The group has now finalized the plan to use a revitalized timber industry capable of making a profit on small trees to thin some 50,000 acres annually for the next 20 years.
The target area represents nearly one-third of the 2.4 million forested acres in four national forests — the Kaibab, Coconino, Tonto and Apache-Sitgreaves.
The group now hopes to convince the U.S. Forest Service to adopt the plan, which would provide a national model. The pioneering approach would protect forest communities from wildfires, restore tattered forest ecosystems and create thousands of jobs — all at a dramatically lower cost to the taxpayers than the current approach.
The key to the plan lies in the agreement between the timber industry and environmentalists that promises to avoid the snarl of lawsuits and protests that have all but paralyzed forest policy for the past decade — both in Arizona and nationally.
Studies suggest the project could yield some 850-million board feet of timber and 8 million tons of brush and wood, without touching the largest trees. That could produce as many as 13,000 jobs and $1.1 billion in wood products, according to NAU researchers.
The breakthrough agreement between loggers and environmentalists enshrined in the 4FRI’s just completed Path Forward, represents the first such comprehensive consensus after decades of lawsuits and controversy.
The deteriorating condition of the forest itself made the agreement vital. A century ago, tree densities averaged around 50 trees per acre. But as a result of cattle grazing, fire suppression and logging — densities have now grown to perhaps 1,000 trees per acre. Many areas have not experienced a normal fire in 100 years.
As a result, communities like Payson, Pine, Strawberry, Christopher Creek, Show Low and Flagstaff face a grave threat from forest fires fueled by vast tree thickets. Moreover, dense, “doghair” thickets of saplings support a much less diverse set of plants and animals than the broad, grassy, old-growth forests dominated by giant, 200- to 800-year-old ponderosa pines.
Both sides now agree they must revive a profitable timber industry without touching the big trees — anything over 16 inches in diameter or old enough to develop the distinctive, yellow-red, vanilla-scented bark of a ponderosa that sprouted before about 1880, said McKinnon, representing the Centers for Biological Diversity.
McKinnon estimated that such big, old-growth trees represent less than about 3 percent of the hundreds of millions of trees in the study area, which stretches from the Grand Canyon to New Mexico and includes all of the Rim Country.
“The big thing is that we’ve come up with a tree-retention strategy,” said McKinnon.
The plan would leave most of the 16-inch trees untouched, unless a site-specific study demonstrated that cutting the larger trees on that particular site would benefit wildlife or protect homes from the threat of wildfire.
All sides hope that the Forest Service will embrace the plan and work with timber companies to provide long-term contracts to harvest the trees less than 16 inches in diameter. Studies suggest that money-making sawmills could use that small diameter wood to make particle board and new varieties of composite lumber as well as provide fuel for power generation plants.
The Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest has pioneered that approach with a long-term contract with loggers known as the White Mountains Stewardship Contract. Timber companies have thinned some 38,000 acres in the past five years. Congress authorized the long-term contract as a pilot program after the 2002, 500,000-acre Rodeo-Chediski Fire, which cost $50 million to fight.
That long-term contract helped develop interest in small-diameter tree mills and wood products, but the Forest Service has had to kick in millions of dollars in taxpayer funds to subsidize the thinning operations — which have focused on not only restoring forest health but protecting communities like Show Low from wildfires.
Backers of the 4FRI approach hope that the timber companies can make enough money from the small trees that taxpayers will pay little or nothing to thin some 750,000 acres.
The environmentalist hope that once the forest has been thinned, forest managers can once again rely on the natural, low-intensity ground fires to keep the forest healthy.
Studies show that in the pre-settlement forests, ground fires burned through every five to seven years, consuming the small trees and downed wood, returning nutrients to the soil and nurturing a lush growth of grass without hurting the big, thick-barked, high-branched trees. Such pre-settlement forests had mostly big trees — but a patchwork of meadows and denser forests.
In this view of the forest’s long-term future, the Forest Service would let natural fires burn across millions of acres and focus its harvest and thinning efforts on those buffer zones on the outskirts of forest communities too close to buildings to risk natural wildfires.
On the other hand, many advocates for the timber industry hope that a re-invented timber industry will have a permanent job as a substitute for natural fires across great expanses of forest.