Forest Restoration Plan Moves Forward

Forest Service launches study that could offer timber companies long-term thinning contracts within a year

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The U.S. Forest Service has taken a first step toward awarding a long-term contract for forest thinning that could dramatically reduce the wildfire danger throughout the region at minimal cost to taxpayers.

The Forest Service has released a draft of the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI), an effort to use a revitalized timber industry to harvest and thin small trees on millions of acres in four national forests in Arizona.

The first phase would offer some 750,000 acres of land to timber companies, providing they can handle the small trees that have grown to dangerous densities.

Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin said she hopes the Forest Service will complete all the necessary studies in the next year and that thinning and harvesting operations will start in roughly 12 months.

However, she said the Forest Service will have to offer timber companies 10- and 20-year contracts to make the project viable. She said without such long-term contracts, the timber companies won’t make the big investment necessary to build a new generation of small-log sawmills, biofuel plants and chipboard plants.

She said that without long-term contracts, taxpayers would have to provide a $500 to $700 per-acre subsidy.

“The Forest Service is well adapted to following environmental laws — but they need to get up to speed on economic laws as well,” said Martin, after a meeting with freshman Republican Congressman Paul Gosar, who represents Rim Country and sits on the key House Natural Resources Committee.

Key backers of the 4FRI plan will meet today in Flagstaff, a group that includes the crucial but rare collaboration of environmentalists and loggers.

The Forest Service will spend at least a month holding “scoping” hearings to gather public concerns.

The Forest Service will then commission a study on the potential environmental impacts of using timber companies to thin a vast swath of land from the Grand Canyon to New Mexico.

Across that vast expanse, forests once dominated by big, fire-resistant ponderosa pines growing at average densities of perhaps 25 trees per acre are crammed with thickets of little trees in densities of 1,000 per acre.

That explosion in the thickets of small trees sprang from a century of grazing and fire suppression, which eliminated the frequent, low-intensity ground fires that once kept Arizona forests open and grassy.

Now, the thickets offer the perfect fuel for devastating crown fires that have made the region among the most fire-menaced in the nation.

The Rodeo-Chediski Fire in 2002 burned half a million acres, consumed 426 homes, incinerated a 40-mile-wide swath of forest down to almost bare ground, and dramatized the threat of the thick, unhealthy forests.

The Forest Service has spent millions hand-thinning the thickets on the outskirts of Payson, Pine, Strawberry and other forest communities, but can’t afford to tackle the millions of acres that remain.

A coalition of forest advocates and timber companies spent several years hashing out a consensus on the need to thin some 2.4 million acres, including much of Rim Country.

The timber industry that operated for decades in Rim Country has largely shut down. In part, that reflects the consumption of the biggest, most profitable trees for which most mills were designed. Moreover, conservation groups proved adept at winning lawsuits that asserted the Forest Service ignored many laws protecting wildlife and forest ecology in operating its timber sale program.

The Forest Service tried offering five-year contracts to timber companies in the White Mountains to thin more than 10,000 acres of forest. Forest managers had hoped that timber sales would cover the cost of the program, but the Forest Service sharply limited the number of acres thinned each year, which meant the timber companies needed a subsidy of about $700 per-acre.

Even at that level, studies suggest the timber-company-assisted thinning effort yielded economic benefits to the local community.

A study by Northern Arizona University economists concluded that every $10 invested by the federal government in forest restoration generates $13 in economic benefits to rural communities. Using timber companies to thin and process the smaller tress could generate nine local jobs for every 1,000 acres treated.

NAU professor Yeon-Su Kim estimated that treating 1.7 million acres would cost the Forest Service $1 billion at the current rate, but would generate $518 million in labor income from some 15,000 jobs and produce $1.3 billion in “total economic inputs.”

The 4FRI project attempts to go one step further, by eliminating the subsidy altogether — on the assumption that timber companies could make enough from products made from the small diameter trees to cover the cost of the thinning.

“The challenge now is to develop the contracts in tandem with the environmental studies,” said Martin. “We need to make it profitable without the $500-per-acre subsidy.”

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