The effort to protect Rim communities from wildfires, restore forest health and revive the region’s timber industry got a major boost this week with word of a $2 million federal grant to begin detailed planning.
The innovative 4-Forests Restoration Initiative hopes to eventually thin 2.4 million acres of ponderosa pine forest in northern Arizona — including all of Rim Country.
A coalition of environmentalists, local officials and representatives of the Forest Service and timber industry have spent the past two years hashing out an agreement on how to employ a re-invented timber industry to thin dangerously overgrown forests from Flagstaff to New Mexico, creating an estimated 600 new jobs in the process.
The grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture will provide money to undertake the planning needed to offer long-term contracts to the timber industry in hopes such contracts will encourage the investment in bio-fuel power plants and sawmills that can handle the small diameter trees choking millions of acres.
“On the heels of wildfire season, the need for this effort is clearer than ever,” said 1st District Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, who has been pushing for funding and arranged forest tours for the secretary of agriculture and several other top federal officials last year. “It will help move closer to both safeguarding our communities and reversing the economic downturn in our region.”
Gov. Jan Brewer said the grant will focus initially on thinning some 50,000 acres, selected in part to provide fire protection for communities surrounded by thick, fire-prone forests.
“It will create much-needed jobs in rural Arizona and help bolster rural economic growth now and into the future,” she said. “I would like to thank the Arizona Forest Health Council (FHC) for their leadership.” The governor’s office, under both Janet Napolitano and Brewer, launched a study of the need to use a refocused timber industry to thin forests where tree densities have increased from perhaps 50 per acre to 600 or 1,000 per acre in the past century.
“This is a win-win by cleaning up forests and removing the dangerous kindling and turning it into a useful commodity and putting people to work,” Brewer concluded.
Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin has played a leading role in the 4-Forests Restoration Initiative locally, repeatedly convening day-long meetings involving a normally ungainly array of groups with an interest in forest health — including citizens groups working to create thinned buffer zones on the outskirts of communities in Rim Country.
The effort also got a big boost when it recruited representatives from the Centers for Biological Diversity, an Arizona environmental group that repeatedly sued to prevent the logging of old-growth trees — but which has signed on for the new approach.
A host of states applied for an initial $10 million in the federal funding, but only nine got the nod from a national, 15-person advisory committee.
The application for the 4-Forests Initiative estimated that thinning 50,000 acres will produce economic benefits totaling some $170 million through the sale of wood products. Those estimates are based on a study by economists from Northern Arizona University (NAU).
Other NAU researchers laid the scientific groundwork for the new approach to restoring forest health as a result of more than 20 years of study focused on figuring out what the forest looked like before the arrival of Europeans ushered in more than a century of logging, cattle grazing and fire suppression.
The picture of a grassy, diverse, fire-resistant forest dominated by big ponderosa pines and swept clean by low-intensity ground fires every five to eight years eventually forged a consensus on a new goal for forest management. That consensus generally focused on sparing the large trees more than 16 inches in diameter but drastically thinning the millions of smaller trees.
The U.S. Forest Service has been working desperately for the past five years to thin a buffer zone around forest communities, after the 500,000-acre Rodeo-Chediski Fire demonstrated the deadly vulnerability of thick, stressed forests to wildfires. However, hand-thinning costs perhaps $1,000 per acre and even controlled burns cost about $600 per acre — making the task of thinning millions of overgrown acres ruinously expensive.
Backers hope that the offer of long-term contracts guaranteeing a minimum amount of wood will convince the timber industry to invest millions in power plants that can burn scrap wood and sawmills that can produce things like plywood and composite wood products for things such as posts and guardrail posts.
In fact, Arizona Log and TimberWorks was recently awarded $350,000 in Forest Service grants to produce roundwood guardrail posts.
One of the early demonstration projects to showcase the new composite wood material is the ramada in front of the community center in Pine.