The forest wars are officially over, declared a blue ribbon panel gathered to greet U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in Christopher Creek Saturday as he toured a groundbreaking effort to restore forest health and protect fire-threatened communities.
“This is great work, great work,” said 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 triggered the rare visit by the head of a major federal agency. Vilsack, 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, and both state and local officials will serve as a national model.
“I’m hoping to look back on this day as the official end of the forest wars,” 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.”
Kirkpatrick, a first-term congresswoman and former Flagstaff prosecutor and state lawmaker, pushed hard to get Vilsack to make the trip, hoping to win high-level backing for the ambitious effort and for federal funding for thinning projects to protect fire-menaced communities.
“We all know a healthy forest means a healthy economy and healthy families and we’ve all seen what wildfires can do. So this is the end of the timber wars and it’s been years and years in the making,” Kirkpatrick said.
Vilsack, who admitted he grew up in Pittsburgh, said he’d had a crash course in the importance of the nation’s forests, which get some 260 million visits annually.
“When I got this job, I realized that for far too long, the Forest Service has been a kind of stepchild and I wanted to figure out what we could do to change the dynamic.”
He said the local efforts to figure out a way to use the timber industry to restore the forest provides just such a dramatic shift.
“I’m going to tell President Obama that we really do need to figure out how to leverage this resource — as you all have figured out. We do believe you are onto something.”
The so-called Four Forests initiative involved a years-long series of studies to forge an agreement on how much wood a refocused timber industry could take out of the region’s forests. In that vast area, tree densities have risen from perhaps 50 per acre to more than 1,000 per acre after a century of grazing, logging and fire suppression.
Now, with the remaining big trees beset by debilitating thickets of saplings 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 — a cost of more than $1,000 per acre.
“The answer’s in the economy, not the treasury,” said Martin.
Corbin Newman, regional forester for the U.S. Forest Service, said his agency has invested $2 million in this effort to “rewrite the rule book because there’s not enough money to do this the way we have in the past.”
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 built a mill to handle small trees.
The Forest Service has guaranteed the right to harvest 5,000 to 15,000 acres annually, in return for a focus on thinning buffers around forest communities at dramatically reduced cost.
A study that brought together forest managers, environmentalists and timber industry representatives reached remarkable agreement on the wood that could be harvested on some 2.4 million acres in the Coconino, Tonto and Apache-Sitgreaves forests.
Only about 40,000 big trees greater than 16 inches in diameter remain. Such big, fire-resistant trees were long the mainstay of the timber industry, but also vital to forest ecology. By contrast, that area now has some 850 million board feet of wood in the form of smaller diameter trees and 8 million tons of brush and wood that could be burned in energy-producing power plants, the study concluded.
That would provide more than enough wood to supply power plants and the timber industry for the next 20 years.
Researchers from Northern Arizona University’s Ecological Restoration Institute have estimated that using the timber industry to thin just half of the overgrown land in the study area would produce 13,000 jobs and forest products worth $1.1 billion.