An unprecedented coalition of officials, environmentalists and timber company representatives met this week to advance a bold plan to protect fire-menaced forest communities by thinning millions of acres.
The group working on the plan to use a reinvented timber industry to save the forest met in Pine on Tuesday in the shadow of a ravenous 14,800-acre blaze near Flagstaff that underscored the urgency of their task. As of Thursday night the fire was 40 percent contained.
“We’ve got fire behavior up there like our folks have never seen,” said Acting Coconino Forest Supervisor Heather Provencio of the Schultz Fire, roaring through even green aspen stands above 10,000 feet.
The uncontrolled blaze triggered by an abandoned campfire on Sunday provided the perfect backdrop for the 40 forest advocates and managers from across the region to plot strategy for a creative effort to use a reinvented timber industry to thin 2.5 million acres of badly overgrown Arizona forests.
The 4-Forests Restoration Initiative (4-FRI) hopes to convince the U.S. Forest Service to offer long-term contracts to thin 50,000 acres annually in the Kaibab, Coconino, Tonto and Apache-Sitgreaves forests.
The group hopes to get started with 10,000 or 30,000 acres within 18 to 24 months, which would set a blistering pace for an agency notorious for its long studies and slow decision-making.
Ironically, the rampaging Schultz Fire has already consumed about 7,000 acres the group hoped to include in its first timber sale. The fire has alarmed forest managers by rushing through thick forests where the snowpack melted only six weeks ago. The Forest Service has already spent nearly $3 million fighting that fire.
Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin said only a massive thinning operation with costs offset by selling the wood to small-diameter-log mills and power generation plants can save forest communities surrounded by a tinderbox forest.
“We know it’s going to burn. We know where it’s going to burn. We can hold those fires off for only so long,” she said. “That’s why we have to get industry involved.”
She said a small fire started in the forests near Payson several days ago, but fire crews snuffed it out quickly by using water from big, portable water-storage bladders bought as surplus from the military and posted strategically throughout the forest.
The day-long meeting involving a broad range of officials and forest advocates offered daunting, cautionary tales focused on the mammoth task ahead.
The 4-FRI assumes that high-volume, long-term contracts for the millions of small trees growing in dangerous densities can convince timber companies to invest millions in mills capable of turning spindly trees into plywood, fence posts, pressed wood and fuel pellets. Such a reinvented timber industry could reduce the $1,000 to $1,500 per-acre cost of thinning a fire-prone stand to near zero.
The composition of the group offers the first glimmer of hope for a consensus that would make such a massive, long-term project possible. The key representatives include both timber company officials and the Centers for Biological Diversity, an environmental organization whose lawsuits helped block a previous generation of timber sales focused on cutting down the last of the big, old-growth ponderosa pines.
All sides involved in the 4-FRI effort have agreed that tree densities pose a danger to both forest health and forest communities and the timber industry can play a vital role in thinning millions of acres if loggers largely let stand the old-growth trees bigger than 16 inches in diameter.
Problem: Getting the Forest Service moving quickly
Tuesday’s meeting in the Pine Community Center focused on a problem potentially just as intractable as getting environmentalists and timber company executives to link arms and sing Kum Ba Yah: Getting the Forest Service to move quickly.
The group listened to a cautionary tale offered by a much smaller-scale effort to thin forests near vulnerable communities in the White Mountains.
The Apache-Sitgreaves Forests five years ago entered into a 10-year contract with a coalition of local timber companies to thin some 150,000 acres. The contracts were intended to provide financial incentives to revamp and re-open shuttered mills, improve forest health and reduce the dire wildfire danger facing communities like Show Low and Alpine.
Studies of that effort suggest that it costs about $1,500 per acre to thin a forest where tree densities have increased from about 50 per acre to about 800 per acre in the past century. Initially, the Forest Service agreed to shoulder costs of about $1,000 per acre, which includes the $500 per-acre cost of doing the studies necessary to conduct the timber sales.
Backers of the plan hoped that as the timber industry brought new mills and bio-generating power plants on line, the value of the wood products would rise and the need for a public subsidy would drop. The original plan called for starting slow at about 5,000 acres per year and then scaling up to about 18,000 acres per year.
However, the project launched just as the housing market collapsed, dramatically reducing the demand for wood products.
Molly Pitts, executive director of the Northern Arizona Wood Products Association, offered the group a discouraging progress report on that faltering effort.
On the positive side, private industry has responded to the flow of wood by investing millions in new mills and power plants. Those new businesses have generated about 300 new jobs in the economically struggling region, she reported.
Moreover, the timber companies have developed new markets for fence posts, poles, pressed wood and other products created from the small-tree mills. As a result, the mills say they could not use wood harvested from 18,000 acres per year.
There’s just one catch — and it’s huge.
The timber companies say they still need the $500 per-acre taxpayer subsidy, plus the $500 per-acre administrative cost of preparing the sales.
As a result, thinning 18,000 acres annually would cost the Apache-Sitgreaves Forests $1.8 million annually — money it doesn’t have.
The failure to reduce thinning costs, resulted in the Forest Service telling the timber companies that it would limit the program to 5,000 acres annually. At that rate, the newly formed timber mills may go belly up, said Pitts.
“We’ve built infrastructure that’s absolutely crucial,” said Pitts.
“If we lost that infrastructure, the ability of those companies to get financing again is just about zero. I really am beginning to question what I’m doing here. We’re being told one thing, but actions are something else.”
Bob Taylor, on the timber sales staff for the Apache-Sitgreaves Forests, said the budget restrictions imposed by the national and regional offices have dealt the program a blow.
“When money has to be diverted from other programs (for the contract), they take a pretty tremendous hit. Morale is pretty bleak right now, but we’re still trying to bring the cost down so we can stretch to cover more acres.
Pitts said that based on the White Mountain Restoration Contract, she worried both about the long-term Forest Service commitment to a massive thinning effort and about whether sales of the small trees to industry would ever completely cover the cost of the thinning.
Still, the planning group plunged ahead for the rest of the day — working on a strategy to hurry the process along. The group hopes to convince the Forest Service to do a general environmental impact report on an initial 750,000 acres, which includes a broad swath of Rim Country.
Such an approach would speed things up by allowing a much quicker, sharply focused environmental assessment on smaller, annual sales — starting at about 10,000 to 30,000 annually.
Operating with the help of First Congressional District Rep. Ann Kirkpatrick, the group has already engineered two tours by top Department of Agriculture officials, who all promised to push the project through as quickly as possible. The group hopes to draw up contracts and put them out to bid within about 18 months, which would be light speed for the Forest Service.
By way of contrast, Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin has been trying in vain for several years to get permission from the Tonto National Forest to create emergency escape routes through the forest for a dozen fire-menaced Rim Country communities with a single entrance into the development.