A succession of county supervisors, environmentalists and timber industry supporters appealed to the state Legislature to support a historic effort to thin the state’s overgrown, fire-prone forests at a special committee hearing chaired by Rim Country’s two House members.
“Being contrary has gotten us no where except forests that are overgrown and burning at a catastrophic rate,” said Navajo County Supervisor David Tenney, whose family once operated lumber mills.
However, the 4 Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) that would thin some 2.4 million acres of dangerously overgrown forests has turned “enemies into partners” — bringing together environmentalists and timber interests, he said.
“People have been slogging it out and working hard to get things happening on the ground that will give us healthier forests,” said Sandy Bahr, with the Sierra Club. She said all sides have agreed on the need to save the remaining big trees and thin the thickets of small trees with the help of private industry. “We didn’t get here overnight and we won’t solve the problem overnight — but we need to start moving forward.”
Tom Tilford, a Greer business owner, appealed to all sides to act. He said this summer’s Wallow Fire may bankrupt many of the tourist-dependent businesses in the White Mountains — even though it left most buildings intact.
“We have been robbed. Our livelihoods have been stolen from us. The communities affected by this fire might not survive, individual businesses might not survive. We’re not asking for handouts.
“We did the best we could do. But meanwhile, all the things we tried to protect are gone. The Blue River is now referred to as the Black. The protected minnow is gone. A generation of bears are gone. A generation of turkeys are gone. It won’t return to what it was in my lifetime. I’m just amazed there are not more who are outraged.”
Speaker after speaker said years of efforts by forest experts, local officials, environmentalists and timber representatives has produced the 4-FRI plan to restore forest health and dramatically reduce fire dangers on a million acres. The Forest Service hopes to start awarding contracts to thin 750,000 acres by the end of this year.
However, despite the praise for a new, non-confrontational, consensus approach that ran throughout the testimony before the special House Committee on Forest Health, District 5 Rep. Chester Crandell concluded the hearing by effectively appealing to residents who lost business as a result of the recent Wallow Fire to sue environmental groups for damages.
Business owners urged to
sue environmental groups
“Who do you hold responsible for the devastation that’s taken place,” Crandell asked Tilford repeatedly, while making clear that he blamed environmental groups that had challenged timber sales in an attempt to protect the largest, most fire-resistant trees.
“We have legislation in place to help people who have been wronged so they can go to court. Has there been any thought of having a citizens group come together and naming those you feel responsible?”
In earlier questions, Crandell repeatedly wondered aloud whether the state could push for the repeal or suspension of most federal environmental laws and manage the forest to maximize logging and cattle grazing.
However, Crandell’s appeal to renew the “timber wars” in court remained out of synch with the rest of the day’s testimony and questions from lawmakers, including Rep. Brenda Barton, who chaired the hearing and also represents District 5, which includes all of Rim Country.
The special hearing in Phoenix mostly focused on broad support from both environmental and industry groups for the 4-FRI, which would offer long-term contracts to timber companies that could make money on turning small trees into wood products.
Bahr, representing the Sierra Club, said that most of the appeals and lawsuits filed by environmental groups focused on protecting old growth timber, which harbors the greatest diversity of wildlife.
She said loggers once focused on those huge, high-profit trees. Now, ponderosa pines larger than 24 inches in diameter make up less than 1 percent and those more than 16 inches in diameter account for less than 3 percent of the trees in the forest. Only about 5 percent of the state’s old growth forest remains, mostly in areas too steep or remote for logging.
Bahr said the environmental groups that helped develop 4-FRI agreed with timber interests on the need to dramatically reduce tree densities on 2.4 million acres of northern Arizona forests — including much of Rim Country. She also agreed that only the involvement of private industry that could make money on those small trees would make the massive thinning effort feasible.
Tenney followed up with a dovetailed appeal for 4-FRI, saying that studies show that thinning 50,000 acres annually would produce 600 jobs and generate $170 million annually in business.
Tenney said, “It’s no secret what the timber wars produced: They produced litigation and court orders stopping logging that caused companies like ours to go out of business. Now the once-vibrant timber industry is virtually non-existent.”
He said the consensus approach now offers the best hope in a generation to restore healthy forests.
He said the Forest Service has already started an environmental assessment of a thinning plan for 750,000 acres — instead of doing the studies on a few thousand acres at a time.
All told, the assessment will take 18 to 24 months, which would represent a huge burst of speed for the Forest Service.
As a point of comparison, Payson spent a year doing an environmental assessment of the 15-mile-long Blue Ridge pipeline and has spent another year trying to get the Forest Service to approve the completed assessment.
Thinning contract possible
by year’s end
Ethan Aumack, representing the Grand Canyon Trust who has also chaired a governor’s task force on forest health, said he hopes the Forest Service will award a contract to thin 300,000 acres by the end of this year. The restoration project has received some $40 million in federal grants to pay for studies already and remains the top priority nationally.
Greenlee County Supervisor Richard Lunt said the 538,000-acre Wallow Fire this summer underscored the danger of delay. All told, wildfires burned 850,000 acres in Arizona this summer, the worst year in state history. The Wallow Fire alone consumed 2.5 billion board feet of timber and cost $100 million to fight.
“Industry and profit are the answer to our problem. We must make this work or we will continue to have catastrophic fires that will destroy what so many have worked so hard to build. The solution is not in the treasury — we don’t have enough money. The solution is in the economy.”
Pat Graham, with the Nature Conservancy, said thinning projects prevented the Wallow Fire from consuming Alpine, Greer and Springerville.
He said that for the cost of fighting the Wallow Fire, the Forest Service could have thinned 300,000 acres. “So it’s not that we’re not spending enough — we’re spending a lot,” he said.
Graham said the 4-FRI approach will represent a revolutionary approach to forest restoration.
Scientists will offer general guidelines for a healthy forest including things like tree densities, special treatment of riparian areas, diversity of tree types and spacing, needs of an array of wildlife species and a host of other factors. The timber companies with contracts to do the thinning will then move through the forest to create those healthy and sustainable conditions.
In the old model, Forest Service workers marked individual trees to cut and then supervised the loggers.
In the new approach “you can’t afford to have someone go out there and mark the trees. These people are going to have to have the responsibility in their hands to resculpt the forest — they’re going to be artists in terms of creating the forests we want to have. We have to think how to work faster and at a larger scale.”
He said the state Legislature could help by finding ways to provide assistance for the small-wood mills and biofuel plants private companies will have to build to make use of the immense amount of small-diameter trees these private companies will harvest.
As one example, he said the state could consider lifting a ban on using round guard rails made from small diameter trees on highways, since one company that makes guard rails now in the White Mountains has to export all it produces.
Graham concluded “The national forest must remain a priority. They’re the lungs of our planet, the reservoirs of our water, our playground, the home of our wildlife, the basis of rural economies. So we urge you to act with urgency.”