A five-year, $30 million effort to thin 40,000 acres of forest in the White Mountains has yielded a host of lessons vital to Rim Country — some hopeful, some depressing.
The good news: Timber companies can create a lot of jobs, slash fire danger and actually improve forest health — even if they are only cutting down small trees.
The bad news: The project never did away with a $800-per-acre subsidy that would make the same approach ruinously expensive if expanded to cover millions of acres.
The White Mountain Stewardship Project recently issued an evaluation of its groundbreaking effort to thin dangerously overgrown forests by paying private companies to cut down millions of small trees and sell them to power plants and sawmills.
The expensive effort in the White Mountains has served as a model for a much more ambitious effort to thin 2.4 million acres spread across northern Arizona —including all of Rim Country. Backers of the so-called 4-Forests Restoration Initiative (4-FRI) project hope that timber companies able to handle small trees can thin fire-prone forests and create thousands of jobs without any net cost to taxpayers.
The groundbreaking effort to use long-term timber harvest contracts offers Rim Country its best chance of avoiding a devastating wildfire on the scale of the Rodeo-Chediski Fire, which charred 600,000 acres and forced the evacuation of Show Low. The U.S. Forest Service recently awarded the 4-FRI project $3 million for developing contracts to thin and restore 2.4 million acres.
The White Mountain Stewardship contract served as a model for the more ambitious 4-FRI plan — with some crucial differences.
Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin said the effort in the White Mountains never had a chance to break even.
Several studies have suggested tree densities have reached dangerous and unhealthy levels throughout Arizona forests. It would cost $2 billion to thin 2.4 million acres based on the White Mountain model.
However, Martin said the coalition of public officials, environmentalists and timber executives who devised the 4-Forests Restoration Initiative believe they can eliminate any taxpayer subsidy by offering industry 20- or 30-year contracts to thin 30,000 to 50,000 acres annually.
By contrast, the White Mountains restoration effort offered sawmills and thinning contractors 10-year contracts for about 5,000 acres annually. When the sawmills pleaded for more wood, the Forest Service said it couldn’t afford to expand the project, due to the big taxpayer subsidy.
Martin said, “No one in the lumber business is going to seriously invest in equipment for a 10-year contract. You have to figure that the first 10 years will pay for their equipment — the profit’s in the second 10 years.”
Still, the five-year evaluation of the White Mountains project did offer some encouragement for supporters of the effort to reinvent the timber industry to prevent monster fires from eventually consuming forest communities.
Projected created 319 jobs
The evaluation found that the project in the White Mountains had created 319 jobs and generated $40 million in economic benefits, at a cost to taxpayers of $30 million.
“We hope the federal government and private industries understand the value of such a restoration project and the importance of a long-term commitment well beyond the terms of the contract,” said Future Forest Partner Dwayne Walker.
The 10-year thinning contracts and promise of a steady supply of small trees and brush supported a total of 20 different businesses, including a new sawmill that created wood pellets and the Snowflake White Mountain Power Company, which turned 40 percent of the harvested biomass into electrical power.
The project also yielded mostly encouraging environmental findings.
Studies of the treated areas found that the number of birds increased in the years after the thinning project and that populations of black bears had not changed.
The evaluation said the thinning projects had not significantly damaged or disturbed the soil, but underscored the need to limit harvesting activities when the ground is damp.
The project also experimented with ways to streamline the whole process, to minimize the cost to the Forest Service of studying and marking each parcel slated for cutting. Instead, the contractor agreed to mostly spare trees larger than 16 inches in diameter and follow ground rules intended to return forests to the densities that prevailed perhaps 100 years ago.
In many cases, that would involve reducing tree densities from 600 to 1,000 per acre to about 50 per acre.
The study concluded that the Forest Service should work with a limited number of contractors so the companies would follow the rules, leave clumps of trees vital to certain species along with wildlife corridors between patches and maintain forest health without having Forest Service personnel go in and mark every tree for cutting.
The study concluded the project had proven a boon to small towns in the White Mountains. Contractors and their employees spent $13 million annually in those local communities.
Moreover, the project generated $600,000 annually in tax revenues for the Apache and Mojave county governments.
Gila County Supervisor Martin said that despite the experience of the White Mountain Restoration Project, she’s convinced timber companies can make a profit on small trees even without a taxpayer subsidy.
The 4-FRI effort recently landed a $2 million federal grant to lay the groundwork to thin 50,000 to 30,000. That money will pay for the studies needed to prepare a timber sale and for work on the roads the loggers would use.
Recently, the Forest Service kicked in another $1 million, for use in controlling invasive weeds that would affect the project and for other environmental studies.
Those grants put the project on the fast track. “I believe we’re looking to April of 2012 to award a contract. Previously, we were talking about 2017 — it was ridiculous,” said Martin.
The supervisors of the Tonto, Apache-Sitgreaves, Coconino and Kaibab forests have all participated actively in the 4-FRI effort. “Those four forest supervisors have said they could be ready in 18 months if they had the commitment and the resources,” said Martin.
Plans drawn up for chipboard plant
Martin said the alternative energy company AZFRP has already drawn up plans for a chipboard plant in Winslow, which would use the wood it couldn’t turn into boards to power a biomass power plant.
“So I’m cautiously optimistic” that it’s going to actually happen on that schedule. “There’s still many a foot between the cup and the lip,” she quipped, “and several issues could really sink the project.”
For instance, the Forest Service might prove unwilling to enter into the kind of 20- or 30-year contract industry needs to risk investing in new mills and power plants.
Alternatively, the Forest Service might decide to ignore the laboriously negotiated compromise between the timber interests and the environmentalists in the group concerning trees above 16 inches in diameter.
The agreement not to touch those larger trees except in specialized circumstances convinced representatives from the Centers for Biological Diversity, Nature Conservancy and Grand Canyon Trust to support the effort.
But Forest Service officials have so far not committed themselves to abide by that restriction.
“That would be a deal breaker,” said Martin.
“So several things could knock this whole deal in the head — including for the Forest Service not to honor the agreements made within the group.
“But part of what’s going on here is that the Forest Service has to be very careful they’re not allowing anybody to dictate their findings before they do the environmental studies.”