The Forest Wars are officially over, declared a blue ribbon panel gathered to greet the US Secretary of Agriculture in Christopher Creek on Saturday for a tour of a groundbreaking effort to restore forest health and protect fire-threatened communities.
“This is great work, great work,” said Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack of the years of effort that have forged a consensus on the need to restore forest health by reinventing the timber industry to thin millions of acres in four national forests between Williams and Alpine – including all of Rim Country.
Local officials led by Payson Mayor Kenny Evans and First District Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick arranged the rare visit by the head of a major federal agency, since the former Iowa governor now heads the federal agency that administers the Forest Service, which owns most of the land in Gila County.
Vilsack said the collaboration between environmentalists, Forest Service administrators, ranchers and both state and local officials will serve as a national model.
“I think we can declare today that the timber wars have officially ended,” said Todd Schulke, an analyst for the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the most aggressive environmental groups in blocking logging in old growth forests. In a nod to Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin, also on the panel, Schulke quipped, “maybe Tommie can put up an historical marker.”
The so-called Four Forests initiative involved a years long series of meetings and studies to forge an agreement on how much wood a refocused timber industry could take out of a roughly five-million-acre area. In that vast Ponderosa Pine forest, tree densities have risen from perhaps 50 per acre to more than 1,000 per acre, as a result of a century of grazing, logging and fire suppression.
Now, with the remaining big trees beset by debilitating thickets of sapling and forest communities menaced by the threat of monster wildfires, the formerly warring factions have agreed on ground rules that could guarantee timber companies millions of trees annually if they can build mills and biofuel plants than can make money on little trees.
Only such a reinvention of the timber industry can offset the otherwise ruinous cost of hand-thinning millions of acres at a cost of more than 1,000 per acre.
“The answer’s in the economy, not the treasury,” said Martin.
The new approach is already on display in the form of the White Mountain Stewardship Contract, a long-term contract with a timber company that has build a mill to handle small trees. The Forest Service has guaranteed a supply of trees, in return for a focus on thinning buffers around forest communities to provide fire protection at a dramatically reduced cost.