The summer’s massive wildfires sparked a legislative hearing this week during which lawmakers representing Rim Country called for a sharp increase in efforts to thin federal forests and revive the timber industry to help cut millions of overgrown acres.
The lawmakers joined in calling on the federal government to boost budgets for both fire protection and forest thinning, including the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4-FRI), which has won the support of both timber and environmental groups.
However, the hearing also featured Rep. Paul Gosar’s (R-Flagstaff) swipe at “radical environmentalists” and a call for new laws to reduce environmental protections and prevent groups from filing lawsuits.
“Commercial logging used to help reduce catastrophic wildfires by thinning the forests, but bureaucratic red tape combined with the excessive litigation initiative by some extreme environmental groups has resulted in the loss of Arizona’s timber industry,” said Gosar.
Other groups testifying like the Arizona Cattlemen’s Association also turned their testimony into an opportunity to reopen the battles that the 4-FRI had sought to curtail.
“Too many lawsuits, appeals, objections and excessive analysis have paralyzed the Forest Service,” said Cattle Grower’s Association President Andy Groseta. “Radical groups are using the fish, the frog and the owl as surrogates. They are using them to keep man, management and harvests out of our forests.”
Gosar appeared before the Ad Hock Committee on Arizona Forests Restoration Management in the Arizona House on Tuesday. Brenda Barton and Chester Crandell, freshmen state representatives whose district includes all of Rim Country, co-chaired the meeting.
Barton commented “I applaud the heroic efforts that have been made by the boots-on-the-ground in fighting these goliath wildfires. It saddens me that the monument to these tragedies will remain with us for generations to come because we are not allowed into the forest to repair and dress the wounds of these environmental catastrophes.”
Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin, who has played a key role in pushing for the 4-FRI, expressed concerns about the confrontational tone of the hearing — saying the environmental groups that Gosar criticized have played a key role in developing the current plan.
Bruce Greco, director of outreach for the Ecological Restoration Institute, said that lawsuits by environmental groups in the 1980s and 1990s focused on wildlife habitat and protecting the big trees stalled or blocked many harvesting and treatment contracts. The lawsuits consumed a mounting share of Forest Service resources and slowed the flow of wood to the remaining mills, which prompted most of them to eventually shut down.
The shutdown of the mills then left the Forest Service with fewer options to cope with dense stands of trees, most of which took root decades earlier, said Greco.
Gosar said his sprawling District One includes most of 13 rural counties, including 37 million acres owned by the federal government.
This year fires have scorched a million acres of Forest Service land in the Southwest plus another 600,000 acres of private land. The five largest fires in recorded Arizona history have all taken place in the past decade.
Gosar noted that the 700-square-mile Wallow Fire cost about $106 million to fight. The long-term cost of the fire will likely total two to 30 times the cost of fighting it, when damage to watersheds, tourism, business and wildlife are included.
Groseta, testifying for the Cattlegrower’s Association, estimated that the Wallow Fire consumed 400 million board feet of ponderosa pine and 2.1 billion board feet of mixed conifers.
A fact sheet presented at the hearing said that wood harvests from Arizona forests have declined 70 percent since 1986 and that forest densities have increased 40 percent in the last 50 years.
Gosar said that the Wallow Fire dropped in intensity whenever it hit areas cleared as part of the White Mountain Stewardship Project, which paid local timber companies to thin overgrown forests in the area that burned. The original contract called for thinning 150,000 acres in 10 years, but the project has actually thinned just 49,000 acres in the past seven years. The Forest Service curtailed the cut when it ran short of the money called for in the contract to subsidize the thinning. The wood from the small trees removed went to power plants and a particle board mill.
The 4-FRI would, in theory, do without a taxpayer subsidy by providing a much larger, guaranteed supply of timber.
Environmental groups rallied to the support of the Four Forest Restoration Initiative after the timber companies involved said they could turn a profit without a subsidy even if they didn’t cut trees larger than 16 inches.
Forest ecologists say such large trees take 150 to 200 years to grow and are crucial to the return of a natural, fire-adapted forest.
Gosar said, “While it is easy to point fingers about how our forests ended up in their current condition, it is important to put the bickering aside and move forward proactively and constructively together. I applaud all the involved parties for the work that has been done thus far.”