Four-Forest Plan Takes Step Forward

Forest Service, counties, environmentalists, timber companies embrace agreement to thin millions of acres of overgrown forests

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Forest Service officials have signed an agreement to supply small trees to a new generation of lumber mills to protect high country communities from grave fire danger.

Representatives of the three national forests that stretch from the Grand Canyon to New Mexico and include all of Rim Country signed a memorandum of understanding (MOU) — the first step in awarding 30-year contracts to turn millions of small trees into energy and wood products.

Environmentalists, loggers and others signed the MOU on Wednesday morning in Flagstaff with representatives from the Tonto, Coconino, Kaibab and Apache-Sitgreaves national forests.

“The residents of Gila County have been waiting a long, long time for this day,” said Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin.  “I’m honored to be part of this group, and very much look forward to seeing the restoration take place that we’ve all agreed on — it’s long past overdue.”

“The clock is ticking for Arizona’s forests. Failure to make progress puts communities at risk and keeps people from new, much-needed jobs,” said Patrick Graham, director of The Nature Conservancy in Arizona.

“The bold plan and broad groups of supporters for this agreement is the way things will get done in the future, especially because there are going to be far fewer public dollars to support this kind of work. We are very excited about helping turn this into action on the ground to benefit people and nature.”

The ceremony caps years of study and negotiation which backers hope will revive a sustainable timber industry across a six-million-acre swath of forest.

The 4-Forests Restoration Program represents an attempt to return the region’s forests to the diverse and healthy condition they enjoyed a century ago, before grazing, logging and fire suppression unhinged the natural balance.

Historically, Arizona’s ponderosa pine forests had densities of 30 to 50 trees per acre, dominated by giant trees separated by an open, grassy forest floor. However, current forests have more like 500 to 1,000 trees per acre, with thickets of small trees that pose a severe fire danger.

Massive blowouts like the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski Fire, which consumed 500,000 acres and nearly destroyed Show Low, demonstrated the serious danger posed by wildfires in the overgrown forests.

The threat prompted timber interests and environmentalists together with forest researchers from Northern Arizona University to forge an agreement on the need to use a reinvented timber industry to thin some 2.4 million acres of forest. Instead of asking taxpayers to shell out $500 to $1,000 per acre for hand thinning, backers hope the timber mills can essentially cover the cost of the thinning by selling the small trees they harvest. That would require convincing the timber mills to invest millions in chipboard and particle board manufacturing operations plus a network of power plants that can burn the wood scraps.

A study by economists from NAU predicted that long-term contracts feeding wood steadily to a network of mills and power plants would generate about 1,000 jobs annually in the region and save the taxpayers the $1.2 billion cost of hand thinning such an expanse.

“If an effort of this scale is going to work anywhere, it’s going to work here,” said Ethan Aumack, Director of Restoration Programs for the Grand Canyon Trust.

“From the science to the social license to the wood utilization capacity, we have all the necessary pieces in place and now it’s time to move them in unison forward.”

 Pascal Berlioux, president and CEO of Arizona Forest Restoration Products Inc., said “It often felt over the last five years that landscape scale restoration in northern Arizona was about building bridges between people and bridging gaps between organizational perspectives. This MOU with the Forest Service completes the collaborative bridge started by the stakeholders. But collaboration does not accomplish enough if it does not translate into action. It is now time to cross that last bridge and complete the planning and contracting processes that will allow appropriate scale industry to build a small diameter trees utilization infrastructure capable of offsetting treatment costs and funding landscape scale restoration in northern Arizona.”

The MOU signed last week provides the framework for detailed negotiations in the course of the next year.

The timber interests want 20- and 30-year contracts to guarantee a sufficient supply of wood to produce a profit. The conservationist groups want the Forest Service to accept what amounts to a ban on cutting the largest trees — generally those more than 16 inches in diameter.

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