Historic Thinning Plan Could Save Rim Country

Projects included in first phase of ambitious plan to revive timber industry and protect the forest

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At least 2,000 acres in Rim Country will be included in the first, historic 10-year contract with a new generation of loggers to protect forested communities through massive thinning projects, a Forest Service team told top elected officials in Payson last week.

Loggers will thin two huge tracts of overgrown forest along the Control Road between Tonto Village and Whispering Pines as part of the 4-Forests Restoration Initiative (4-FRI), which ultimately hopes to thin 2.5 million acres in four national forests.

“This is the largest environmental impact statement ever done and the largest statewide contract in history,” said Dick Fleishman, assistant team leader in the sweeping attempt to restore the world’s largest ponderosa pine forest.

The Forest Service team made the presentation at the Payson Town Hall last Thursday before Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin, Payson Mayor Kenny Evans and other Rim Country leaders.

The rangers said they hope to settle on a contractor to thin the first 300,000 acres soon and complete a groundbreaking environmental impact study before the end of the year.

The Forest Service hopes the huge acreage and 10-year contract term will convince timber companies to invest heavily in new sawmills, wood-burning power plants and wood product factories to make things like pressed wood and particle board products. Such mills and power plants could turn a profit on the hundreds of millions of small trees that now pose an ecological drain on the forest and a fire danger to communities like Payson.

The Forest Service has spent millions hand-thinning and burning 80,000 acres of buffer zones around Rim

Country communities in the past five years. But this project would get timber companies to do the thinning at no cost to the taxpayers in return for the wood from the small trees. Tree densities in the past century have increased from perhaps 50 per acre to 600 to 1,500 per acre due to fire suppression and grazing, according to Northern Arizona University researchers.

Mayor Evans appealed to the Forest Service team to make sure 4-FRI quickly thins a 224,000-acre watershed that drains into the Blue Ridge Reservoir. Water in that deep narrow reservoir will double Payson’s long-term water supply as soon as the town completes a $30 million pipeline.

Forest Service Team Leader Henry Provencio said crews in that area have already thinned some 5,700 acres and partially cleared out another 30,000 acres with controlled burns.

Supervisor Martin said a single fire in the thick forest could cause erosion that could start to fill the Blue Ridge Reservoir with rock and soil.

“One fire later, we’ve got nothing but mud slides,” she said.

Provencio conceded that the bulk of the 300,000 acres included in the first set of contracts lie around Flagstaff in the Coconino and Kaibab forests, since the forests there had already been inventoried and pose the greatest danger to towns and subdivisions.

However, he said the Blue Ridge area could make it into a second set of contracts for 300,000 to 700,000 acres the Forest Service hopes to have ready to bid in another year or two.

“We have a two-year plan. There can obviously still be fires in there. I guess we keep our fingers crossed in the interim,” said Provencio. “But it’s a priority area.”

The two Rim Country areas most likely to make it into the first round of contracts would help protect Christopher Creek, Tonto Village and Whispering Pines, currently the most fire-menaced communities in Rim Country.

The Payson Ranger District has thinned thousands of acres to create buffer zones around all the other major Rim Country communities, including Payson Pine, Strawberry and Star Valley. That includes some $1.3 million spent this year to re-thin about 8,000 acres as well as about 800 acres of new thinning and burning.

“We’re 95 percent done with our most critical areas,” said Payson Ranger District Fire Management Officer Don Nunley.

In the past decade, the Payson Ranger District has hand-thinned 29,000 acres and used controlled burns to clear another 53,000 acres. Various communities have contributed perhaps $700,000 to help push that effort, but most of the money has come from the Forest Service.

The 4-FRI team said the first contracts went to the Flagstaff area partly because of the access to existing mills and wood product operations. In addition, Flagstaff faces an enormous fire danger, as illustrated in 2010 by the 15,000-acre Schultz Fire, which spurred evacuations, consumed homes and then caused devastating mud slides.

“They did the easy areas first — we’re one of the hard areas,” said Supervisor Martin, who has spent years working with loggers, environmentalists, researchers and forest managers to help develop the 4-FRI approach.

The plan depends on convincing timber companies to invest in mills that can use the small-diameter trees and brush.

The 4-FRI team hopes it can structure the contracts so the timber companies can use the profits they make in areas with lots of mid-sized trees to help subsidize areas with a greater mix of brush and small trees, like Rim Country.

Both Martin and Evans urged the 4-FRI team to get the law changed to allow 20- and 30-year contracts, rather than the present, 10-year maximum.

Evans said the 10-year contract term has scared away many timber companies.

“We’ve had multiple contacts with people that want to come in, but we say ‘10-year contract’ and they don’t return our calls. You have to find a way around that 10-year limit if you’re going to convince companies to invest in mills,” said Evans.

Provencio noted that the Forest Service hopes that the Congress will allow longer terms on the contracts when it reauthorizes the key law in 2013.

The group also discussed one of the most contentious aspects of the forest restoration approach — a proposed limit on the size of the trees cut.

The coalition that developed the 4-FRI approach agreed that the thinning should focus on trees less than 16 inches in diameter, a key point in winning over environmental groups that had lobbied for years to restore old-growth forests dominated by big trees.

Such big trees can withstand frequent, low-intensity ground fires natural to ponderosa pine forests, but not when thickets of small trees carry the fire up into their lower branches.

The legal deadlock that stalled many timber sales often focused on the struggle to save those big trees.

However, Provencio said research convinced the team to design timber cuts to create a diverse, open forest with open areas and clusters of trees. In many areas, that may require removing trees larger than 16 inches.

Each site will differ depending on soils, rainfall and other factors. The open space built into the timber sale will likely range from 10 percent to 50 percent.

“It’s not ‘one size fits all.’ In the last 100 years, a lot of trees have grown into those open areas,” said Provencio. Instead, a healthy forest requires clusters of trees separated by open areas.

Martin said the agreement to leave most of the 16-inch trees was crucial to creating the consensus between the loggers and the environmentalists.

“Many of us don’t believe in a 16-inch diameter cap. But if we don’t have the cap, then the industry will just go after the big trees. But we can live to fight another day if we can get all the stuff below 16 inches out of there.”

That process will build trust between all of the parties involved, who all ultimately want a healthy forest. “Trust is something you behave yourself into,” said Martin.

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