The recent whirlwind Rim Country tour by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack boosted prospects for several key job-creating efforts in Rim Country, where unemployment remains stubbornly high, say officials.
Local officials arranged the rare visit of a top level cabinet secretary to a county where the federal government owns about 85 percent of the land in hopes of enlisting the agriculture secretary’s support in both reviving the timber industry and pushing through a massive, underground copper mine near Globe.
First District Congress-woman Ann Kirkpatrick in a congressional floor speech this week said “as we face the challenges of a stalled economy and a record debt, it is critically important that we find ways to create jobs without spending millions of federal dollars.”
Kirkpatrick has been pushing both the Copper Basin Mine and the so-called Four Forests Initiative as job-creation moves.
Payson Mayor Kenny Evans, who played a key role in convincing the secretary of agriculture to visit, said the tour both educated Vilsack to the economic possibilities here and impressed the local Forest Service managers with Vilsack’s interest.
Rim officials seek support of water, road projects
Evans, Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin and other local officials have been trying to enlist the support of Tonto National Forest officials on a variety of projects, from building the Blue Ridge pipeline across forest land to improving emergency escape routes for landlocked communities as part of an overhaul of roads throughout the national forest.
Now, Kirkpatrick has linked Forest Service policies to job creation, in a region where reductions in the unemployment rate have lagged behind the rest of the slowly recovering state.
The Four Forests Restoration Initiative calls on the U.S. Forest Service to negotiate long-term contracts with timber companies willing to build a new network of mills and power generation plants that can make use of the small trees that form dense stands across some 2.5 million acres of forest between Flagstaff and Alpine, which encompasses most of Rim Country.
One recent study estimated that timber companies could harvest nearly a billion 850-million board feet of timber and 8 million tons of brush and wood, even without harvesting trees more than 16 inches in diameter.
Thinning just half the land in the region from perhaps 1,000 trees per acre to the historical average of about 50 trees per acre would produce 13,000 jobs and $1.1 billion in wood products, according to recent estimates.
Vilsack’s visit also focused on moving forward on a giant copper mine near Globe. The Copper Basin Mine would use robot drills and earth movers to follow a rich vein of copper ore deep beneath a scenic landscape of oaks and boulders near Globe. The roughly 40-acre Oak Flats area near Apache Leap is now used by hikers, campers and rock climbers and also reportedly sacred to some Apache groups.
Critics worry the mine could cause destructive subsidence in the scenic area above the mine and perhaps pollute groundwater. Supporters maintain it would yield billions of dollars in ore with minimal environmental impacts, since the drills would follow the ore veins deep underground and most of the tailings would go back into the tunnels at the end of the project.
The federal government is currently doing an environmental impact statement on the proposal.
Kirkpatrick estimates that the copper mine would create 1,000, well-paid jobs and the Four Forests initiative would create at least 600 jobs.
By contrast, last year’s federal stimulus jobs spending created an estimated 1,100 jobs in the First Congressional District, which includes Rim Country. Those stimulus grants included more than $10 million for Payson’s Blue Ridge pipeline and millions more to pay for forest thinning to protect fire-menaced communities.
Stimulating job creation
Kirkpatrick said the federal government can’t afford to create jobs solely through federal spending, but must give priority to federal actions that can stimulate job creation by private industry.
“These are great examples of how we can get our economy back on track without spending millions of dollars,” she said.
The Four Forests Restoration Initiative could provide a national model for reversing a century of forest mismanagement. Tree densities in Arizona’s ponderosa pine forests have increased from maybe 50 trees per acre to perhaps 1,000 trees per acre as a result of grazing, logging and fire suppression.
A slew of lawsuits helped shut down the timber industry throughout Arizona in the 1990s, but a series of massive wildfires revealed the danger of the thickets of parched trees that covered millions of acres.
The Four Forests initiative attempts to scale up two small-scale restoration efforts to cover a much larger area.
The 2004 White Mountains Stewardship Contract was intended to induce loggers to thin 150,000 acres of forest at minimal cost.
However, the lack of enough mills and developed markets for the fuel pellets, pressed-wood and other products made from small diameter trees, limited the ability of the Forest Service to offset thinning costs. As a result, the Forest Service has been paying the timber company an average of $420 per acre — much cheaper than straight hand thinning, but still too expensive to apply to millions of acres of overgrown forest.
At that cost, it could cost the Forest Service $63 million to thin the proposed 150,000 acres — or perhaps a billion dollars to thin a million dangerously overgrown acres in the four-forest region.
A rare partnership between environmentalists and a timber company in Northern Arizona provides a perhaps more affordable model.
The Center for Biological Diversity and the Grand Canyon Trust back in April struck a deal with Arizona Forest Restoration Products to help it harvest small trees for its “oriented-strand-board” (OSB) processing plant in Winslow, which will produce what amounts to ultra-strong plywood and other products.
The Grand Canyon Trust and the Center for Biological Diversity not only agreed not to oppose Arizona Forest Restoration Product’s timber contracts, but vowed to actually work on behalf of the company to resolve any conflicts and clear away delays. In return, the company pledged not to cut trees greater than 16 inches in diameter.
The plan calls for the company to harvest small trees on about 30,000 acres each year, all at no cost to the taxpayer. In the process, the facility could provide 600 jobs annually and inject $200 million annually into the regional economy.