Congressman Paul Gosar has written an insistent demand that the U.S. Forest Service move quickly to award the first set of contracts to thin fire-plagued woodlands as part of the 4-Forests Restoration Initiative (4-FRI).
The Forest Service had originally planned in December to award 10-year contracts to thin 300,000 acres in central Arizona.
However, although the Forest Service’s regional office in Albuquerque, N.M. has received several bids, it has yet to award contracts for a project advocates say represents the last, best chance to save communities in places like Rim Country from the devastation of firestorms like last summer’s Wallow Fire in the White Mountains.
Gosar, crusading against government in a contentious Republican primary in the district that represents Rim Country, appeared before the Payson Town Council on Thursday and appealed to council members to help pressure the Forest Service into acting.
“We’ve got some issues and we need your help,” Gosar told the council. “The contracts were promised in January and now it’s the end of April. I’m done. And I know you’re done. There’s just no reason the federal government cannot commit to this project. We need more people bringing this up: We’re talking about 1,000 jobs.”
4-FRI Assistant Team Leader Dick Fleishman in Flagstaff said the team had developed the specifications, but the regional office was handling the contracts to avoid any conflicts of interest.
“We had thought it was going in December, but the process was very complicated — is very complicated. So I have no idea why they’re waiting. They’re keeping us completely out of the loop.”
The regional office did not return calls before press time.
Gosar wrote a letter to Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell urging him to quickly approve the stalled 4-FRI contracts. “The citizens of Arizona have become increasingly frustrated with the excessive administrative delays that have stymied the implementation of this important forest health project,” wrote Gosar.
The freshman congressman wrote that the project has the support of Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer and the entire Arizona congressional delegation. “The opportunity before us should not be squandered by unnecessary bureaucracy. I urge the United States Forest Service to proceed in strict accordance with existing agency rules, regulations and ethical guidelines.”
A coalition of local officials, environmentalists and timber company representatives spent years hammering out a compromise plan to revive the almost dead Arizona timber industry to thin millions of acres of ponderosa pine forests stretching from the Grand Canyon to New Mexico, including almost all of Rim Country.
Researchers from Northern Arizona University have concluded that average tree densities in that vast 6-million-acre expanse have increased from perhaps 30 trees per acre a century ago to more like 800 to 1,000 per acre now.
Mostly, they blame overgrazing that removed the grass that used to carry regular, low-intensity ground fires and a century of dedicated fire suppression by the Forest Service.
The logging industry also played a role with clear cuts and harvests that focused on the largest, most profitable trees — which were also the trees best able to withstand periodic, low-intensity fires.
The coalition that developed the 4-FRI approach ultimately agreed to leave most of the remaining big trees standing and to focus on the thickets of trees smaller than 16 inches in diameter.
The Forest Service has spent millions hand thinning thickets of trees on the outskirts of towns like Payson, Star Valley, Pine and Strawberry, but can’t afford to tackle the millions of acres of overgrown forests at a cost of about $800 per acre.
Therefore, forest managers hope that a revived timber industry could handle the task in return for the small trees harvested, which would provide wood for biofuel plants, particle board, pressed wood and other new types of wood products. But first the Forest Service must convince leery timber companies to invest millions in new, small-wood mills, after having long ago concluded they could not count on the Forest Service to consistently deliver the wood they need to make a profit.
Fleishman said the 4-FRI team had prepared the guidelines for a timber sale that included an initial 300,000 acres to be cut over the course of the next decade. About 80 percent of the projects in the first set of contracts lie in the Flagstaff area, where forest managers have already completed environmental reviews and the threat to houses makes the project a high priority.
The first set of contracts would also include several thousand acres along the Control Road that would protect Christopher Creek and other communities.
The early contracts also include about 15,000 on top of the Rim, near the community of Forest Lakes and some of the most heavily used recreational areas in the state.
He said later phases of the project would likely include the watershed surrounding the Blue Ridge Reservoir. Payson officials
pushed hard to include that area to prevent scorched-earth crown fires that would cause later landslides that could dramatically reduce the capacity of the narrow, deep reservoir on which the town depends for its future water supply.
A similar tree thinning project in the White Mountains demonstrated its value when it saved Alpine and Greer. The 530-square-mile Wallow Fire was bearing down on those communities faster than a man can run when it hit a buffer zone thinned as part of the White Mountains Stewardship Project.
That project thinned thousands of acres, but involved an $800-per-acre subsidy from the federal government. Because of that cost, the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests sharply limited the number of acres thinned, which crippled the network of mills built to turn the small-diameter trees into fuel and wood products.