Getting into business with the U.S. Forest Service is a lot like teaching tricks to a grizzly bear — amusing unless you could end up on the bear’s dinner menu.
At least, that’s one lesson you could take from the once-promising, now-troubled effort in the White Mountains to use a retooled timber industry to thin unhealthy, fire-prone forests.
The near collapse of the White Mountain Stewardship Contract has grim implications for Rim Country, whose best hope of avoiding a wildfire cataclysm now rests on a similar effort spread across four national forests dubbed the 4 Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI).
With much fanfare, the Forest Service recently signed an agreement with 19 businesses and organizations to develop long-term contracts to provide enough small trees each year to convince timber companies to build a new generation of mills and power-generating stations.
Even environmentalists signed on to the 4FRI project, hoping to thin millions of acres of dangerously overgrown forests while protecting the big trees more than 16 inches in diameter.
Supporters recently hailed the 4 Forest Restoration project as the only cost-effective way to protect forest communities like Payson, Pine, Strawberry, Show Low, Flagstaff and many others from the threat of a catastrophic wildfire sweeping through the overgrown forests. Thinning by timber companies could also restore forest health, replacing thickets of trees with an open, grassy forest dominated by fire-resistant giants.
The backers of the project hope the Forest Service will come up with 20- or 30-year contracts guaranteeing timber companies a supply of small trees — enough to thin about 50,000 acres a year.
However, as the broad coalition takes up the task of working out the devilish details, a similar effort in the White Mountains is sounding a cautionary note.
The White Mountain Stewardship Contracts (WMSC) have paid private companies $800 per acre since 2004 to thin some 50,000 acres. The private companies used many of the small trees for wood products and fuel, creating 200 jobs at 22 different restoration businesses.
The original plan called for the project to ramp up to about 15,000 acres annually. However, the onset of the recession depressed the market for wood products, which prompted the wood product companies to back away from earlier plans to eventually do without the $800-per-acre subsidy. So now Forest Service officials in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests have dropped a promise to scale up the program from 5,000 acres annually to 15,000 acres. The businesses dependent on the White Mountain Stewardship Contracts are now protesting the reductions and predicting the demise of many of the 22 businesses with contracts.
Moreover, they noted that regional Forest Service officials have begun to undercut the agreement to let stand the largest trees. That agreement to leave standing the 100-year-old trees was crucial to developing a consensus between environmentalists and timber interests — for both the 4FRI project and the White Mountains.
“This cutback would mean that people and families who could lose their jobs with the WMSC may be out of work for a long time or even lose their jobs permanently. This would be devastating to families and our communities,” said Dwayne Walker, Future Forest partner.
“Since the very beginning of the WMSC we’ve honored a carefully balanced social license that supports restoration-based industries and job creation. We’re concerned that we’re losing support from our federal partners for this approach,” said Rob Davis, Future Forest partner.
“Unless the USFS budgets can be stretched further or new approaches developed to ensure that promised restoration-based wood is made available, the closing of many businesses and mass layoffs in communities surrounding the White Mountains is inevitable.”
The White Mountain Stewardship project in 2004 represented the first major embrace of restoration forest harvesting and was supposed to thin 150,000 acres in a decade.
“The White Mountain Stewardship Contract has been a nationally recognized, precedent-setting example of collaboratively supported, ecologically appropriate restoration,” said Ethan Aumack, director of restoration programs for the Grand Canyon Trust. “Its success is critical to the economies of northeastern Arizona, and lessons learned will be critical as we work to accelerate landscape-scale restoration through the 4 Forest Restoration Initiative.
“What many people may not realize is that 4FRI never would have happened without the WMSC,” said Davis.
The backers of the 4FRI project hope to start harvesting within two or three years, providing they can find ways for the timber companies to generate enough revenue from the wood projects they produce to do without a taxpayer subsidy.
“While the 4FRI is a much larger initiative in theory, spanning treatment over all four forests in Arizona over the next 20 to 30 years, without ground treatment starting for another two to three years, it doesn’t help the 200-plus workers with the WMSC who may be out of their job tomorrow,” said Walker.
“The WMSC has had our full support since the beginning,” said Todd Schulke, co-founder of the Center for Biological Diversity. “The Forest Service needs to step up and make good on its promises to protect large trees and provide restoration wood to these businesses. If they fail to make this work for everyone, they’ll be creating a train wreck for these businesses and communities.”
For more information about the White Mountain Stewardship Contract visit www.futureforest.info. For more information about the wood products industry in the White Mountains, visit www.nawpa.org.