Prospects for a groundbreaking effort to thin a million acres of forest and reinvent the timber industry got another boost this week with a tour of Rim forests by top federal officials.
Senior Adviser to the Secretary for Environment and Climate Robert Bonnie and Undersecretary for Natural Resources and the Environment Harris Sherman, who oversees the U.S. Forest Service, headlined a group of 40 industry, government and environmental officials who gathered in Show Low to discuss the 4-Forests Initiative.
First District Rep Anne Kirkpatrick convinced the top officials to tour the regions densely overgrown, fire-prone forests as a follow up to the recent visit of Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.
Kirkpatrick said she hopes the meeting will lead within the next 18 months to an agreement to award a long-term timber contract that will thin some 750,000 acres of forest, create more than 600 jobs and dramatically reduce fire danger facing forest communities.
“We’re moving into the specifics now,” said Kirkpatrick. “We have all the stakeholders at the table now. What makes this project so different is that restoration will pay for itself because the product will be sold to industry: It’s a low-cost jobs project.”
The 4-Forests Initiative represents a nearly unprecedented agreement between the timber industry and environmentalists on the need to restore forest health and reduce fire danger by dramatically thinning millions of acres.
Due to a century of fire suppression, grazing and clear cutting, tree densities have risen from about 50 per acre to about 1,000 per acre across nearly 2 million acres of ponderosa pine forests in central Arizona — stretching from the Grand Canyon to New Mexico and encompassing all of Rim Country.
So instead of low-intensity ground fires that burn through every five years and remove saplings and deadwood without hurting the big trees, the region now faces the catastrophic threat of monster fires like the Rodeo-Chediski Fire that charred nearly 500,000 acres and nearly consumed Show Low.
After years of negotiations, groups like the Centers for Biological Diversity, local officials like Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin, researchers from Northern Arizona University and timber industry representatives agreed on a plan to thin some 1.7 million acres. The plan calls for leaving most of the trees larger than 16 inches in diameter, but providing a long-term contract for wood from smaller trees that would make it economical to build a network of sawmills and power plants that could make a profit on the small trees.
NAU economists have estimated that it would cost the government $1 billion to thin 1.7 million acres, but that investment would generate $1.3 billion in economic activity and produce 15,000 jobs. That estimate doesn’t include the value of averting fires. For instance, the Rodeo-Chediski Fire cost nearly $50 million to fight.
The Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests have entered into a 10-year contract with a timber company in the White Mountains to thin thousands of acres of forest annually. But every acre thinned involves a taxpayer subsidy of hundreds of dollars.
If the Forest Service can’t sell the saplings, brush and wood, then thinning the forest to reduce fire danger and restore forest health could prove very expensive. It costs about $185 per acre to prepare a controlled burn and about $552 per acre to undertake hand thinning.
The goal of the 4-Forests projects is to devise a way for timber companies to actually make money on a thinning contract, with no net cost to the taxpayers, said Kirkpatrick. That, in turn, would depend on the timber industry feeling sufficiently confident of the wood supply to make a heavy investment in sawmills that can make particle board and pressed wood products and power plants that can generate electricity by burning brush and wood scraps.
“During this tough economy, the 4-Forests Restoration Initiative will get folks back to work in greater Arizona without relying on taxpayer money. At the same time, it will reduce the fuel for fires and help firefighters keep us safe — something that is on everyone’s minds as we head into the heart of wildfire season,” said Rep. Kirkpatrick.
Kirkpatrick said she hoped the Forest Service would spend the next few months writing specifications for a long-term contract to thin some 750,000 acres and then put the contracts out for bid later this year.
That first round of contracts would then provide a model for thinning a total of 2.4 million acres in the region, which in turn could provide a national model.
“One of the questions we have is ‘is this a realistic scale to start with?’” said Kirkpatrick. “We don’t want to start something that’s going to come to a screeching halt just when we have really good momentum.”