Soon, the bulldozers will go rumbling out across the streambed of Tonto Creek to patch up some crumbling dikes protecting dozens of homes.
Now, that might not seem like a big deal.
Maybe you think that Gila County and the U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers all work for the taxpayers — and would consider repairing damaged flood control works in a flood-prone creek would qualify as a no-brainer. Hah. Shows what you know.
Major flooding in Tonto Creek in the past two years has repeatedly damaged homes and threatened disaster. After the last round of serious flooding, frightened residents launched a desperate effort to convince Gila County to repair damaged dikes in an effort to divert water away from vulnerable homes and back into the wide streambed.
The request proved unexpectedly complicated since the deed would require major excavations of bureaucratic turf, which is unfortunately more resistant than basalt to change.
Turns out, the creek bed provided vital habitat for an array of endangered species, which means the Forest Service had hoops to jump through before it could approve any action. Moreover, the Army Corps of Engineers had jurisdiction over any significant alteration of flows in the streambed and all sorts of regulations and pending lawsuits to make it move cautiously.
Finally, Gila County had a budget crisis and fears of litigation that made it reluctant to set the bulldozers in motion.
Well, we’re happy to report what amounts to a minor miracle. Under the persistent and articulate pressure of residents, the three government agencies worked out the details — each contributing their share to the solution.
Granted, you’d think it would take about a week to figure out what to do and move forward. Instead, this took eight months. But heck, that’s moving like lightning when you’ve got that many bureaucrats involved.
Gila County Supervisor Mike Pastor and Forest Service District Ranger Kelly Jardine earned the special gratitude of residents, for setting repairs in motion before another spring runoff season once again tests the dikes.
For now residents can listen for the music of the bulldozers and chalk it up as a small triumph for democracy, active citizens and creative officials.
Crucial step to protect forests
The U.S. Forest Service has taken a small, heartening step toward a momentous change in its approach to managing Rim Country’s dangerously overgrown forests.
Forest managers have released the rough draft of a plan to partner with timber companies to thin 750,000 acres of fire-prone forests in the great expanse of ponderosa pine that stretches from the Grand Canyon to New Mexico and includes all of Rim Country.
The Forest Service hopes timber companies can make money off the small-diameter trees that pose such a danger to small towns throughout the region — including Payson, Pine, Star Valley and many smaller communities.
Tree densities on some millions of acres of ponderosa pine forest in Arizona have risen from 30 to 50 trees per acre 150 years ago to more like 500 per acre now.
The timber industry that once provided the economic backbone of the region has all but vanished. That’s mostly because they ran out of the big trees the mills needed to make money. But a flurry of lawsuits spurred by the Forest Service’s refusal to shift to a sustainable approach played a key role as well.
Now, a heartening coalition of forest managers, timber economists and environmentalists has forged a consensus on the need to harvest huge numbers of trees smaller than 16 inches in diameter to restore forest health.
The Forest Service can’t afford the $500 to $1,000 per-acre cost of hand thinning those millions of acres. That means timber companies again have a vital role to play, providing they can make a profit on building a new generation of mills that can make money on the small trees.
The Forest Service hopes that timber companies will now come forward and help it devise contracts that will make that possible. Obviously, such contracts must provide a guaranteed supply of wood that’s sufficient to convince the timber companies to invest millions in new mills and bio-fuel plants.
Studies suggest that treating the full 1.7 million acres on which the environmentalists and timber companies now agree would generate some 15,000 jobs in the region and produce $1.3 billion in economic benefits — while protecting forest communities from catastrophic fires.
We believe the Forest Service will have to offer 10- and 20-year contracts to make such an investment possible. And we also believe such contracts will require the Forest Service to accept the hard-won agreement embodied by the Four Forest Restoration Initiative including the limit on the harvest of the big trees. But we’re heartened by the recent Forest Service actions, which signal the start in a new era in forest management.