The U.S. Forest Service last week awarded the largest contract in history to a private timber company to turn 300,000 acres of small trees into wood products, a move Rim Country officials said may ultimately protect endangered Rim Country communities from wildfires.
However, the Centers for Biological Diversity immediately cast a shadow across the announcement by criticizing the choice of a company headed by a former U.S. Forest Service official the environmental group said had repeatedly sought to loosen protections for old-growth forests.
“It smacks of cronyism,” said Taylor McKinnon, public lands coordinator for the group.
The developing controversy about the contractor selected hinted at the complex science and politics of the landmark effort by a coalition of environmentalists, loggers, foresters and local officials to end decades of deadlock with an agreement to reinvent a nearly moribund timber industry to thin millions of acres choked with thickets of trees. The initial contracts will produce an estimated 500 jobs.
However, many other leading officials hailed the overdue award of the contract to thin 300,000 acres over 10 years to Pioneer Forest Products. The Forest Service wants to induce timber companies to thin, at no cost to taxpayers, up to 2.4 million acres of ponderosa pine forests between Flagstaff and Alpine, including much of Rim Country. Pioneer will thin 30,000 to 50,000 acres annually, with almost all of the initial contracts close to Flagstaff.
Pioneer plans to build a wood products plant in Winslow that can convert millions of small trees into lumber, laminate wood panels, door and door frames, window frames, furniture, cabinetry and specialty components. The company plans to use the brush and debris to power a kiln used to dry out the larger logs and as fuel for a bio-diesel plant.
The Flagstaff area will gain the most benefit from the initial contracts, although Rim Country officials are already lobbying for the inclusion of thinning projects here.
Forest Service officials have previously said that a chunk of a 30,000-acre thinning project along the Control Road near Christopher Creek would likely make a second round of contracts.
In addition, Payson Mayor Kenny Evans and others have pushed the Forest Service to include in the project the thickly forested watershed of the Blue Ridge Reservoir.
Evans said last week that he and others are pressing the Forest Service to include thousands of acres on the slopes above the deep, narrow Blue Ridge Reservoir in the early contract awards. The thinning efforts could likely reduce tree densities from 600-1,000 per acre to more like 50-100 per acre. That would dramatically reduce the odds that a crown fire would denude the watershed, causing the reservoir to begin to fill up with mud.
In addition, dramatically reducing tree densities would increase runoff and so boost the effective yield of the reservoir on which most of Payson’s plans for future growth depend.
A parade of elected officials vied to take credit for the historic contract award, which grew out of years of painstaking consensus building involving loggers, environmentalists and local officials.
Gov. Jan Brewer praised the contract award, “With the destruction of last summer’s wildfires still fresh in our minds — and in light of the severe beginning to this year’s fire season — today’s news could not have come to Arizona at a better time.”
Coconino Forest Supervisor Earl Stewart said, “This is an enormous step in restoring the health and sustainability of our forests. This contract will help us achieve the goal of setting our forests and our economy on a path of recovery.”
Congressman Paul Gosar, who represents Rim Country, also applauded the contract award. “Today’s announcement that a contractor has been chosen to begin forest-thinning efforts is a win for common-sense.
“Arizona is currently facing four wildfires, and had one of the worst fire seasons last year. The tragic wildfires that occurred over the past few years including the fire at Schultz Pass and the Wallow Fire underscore how critical this type of thinning project is to the safety and economic viability of our communities. The fact that it will also create 500 private sector jobs and make local wood products for construction is a bonus.”
U.S. Senators John McCain and Jon Kyl issued a joint statement, saying, “The mega wildfires that have occurred in our state underscore the need to accelerate the pace and scale of the thinning work in Arizona’s national forests. By working with a private partner and guaranteeing a long-term supply of trees for wood products sold for profit, Arizona has the rare opportunity to restore the ecological and economic health of our forested communities despite federal budget constraints.”
Larry Stephenson, executive director of the Eastern Arizona Counties Organization, said, “We’re pleased that a contract has finally been announced. It’s way overdue. We’re looking forward to getting trees cut. We’re talking about 50,000 acres a year of mechanical thinning: that’s a lot of trees, that’s a lot of utilization — we want to see it happen.”
Privately, local officials who have been deeply involved in the years-long effort to forge an agreement on the need to enlist loggers to clear out fire-prone thickets of small trees expressed disappointment with the choice, which threatens to revive the deadlock centered on the fate of the big, fire-resistant, old-growth trees.
A century ago, the timber industry focused on milling those big, ponderosa pines that then seemed in almost limitless supply across the Mogollon Plateau.
However, a century of logging, cattle grazing and fire suppression resulted in dramatic changes in the ecology of that vast forest, as evidenced by the dramatic increase in tree densities.
The old-growth trees can easily withstand frequent, low intensity ground fires. However, after the cattle grazed off most of the grass and the Forest Service concentrated on fire suppression, the small, frequent fires became rare. That allowed thickets of sapling to grow in under the big trees. As a result, fires now burn much hotter and can easily climb up the ladder of the small trees into the lower branches of the big trees. That has led directly to the current era of “mega fires” covering more than half a million acres at a time and leaving the slopes denuded and the soil almost sterilized.
Loggers ultimately cut the great majority of the big, fire-resistant trees, prompting many conservation groups to file appeals and lawsuits to protect the remaining old-growth trees.
The 4 Forests Restoration Initiative (4-FRI) project offered a chance to break that deadlock, after the various sides agreed to focus on the trees smaller than 16 inches in diameter, while leaving the big, older trees in place.
Forest Service officials have never accepted a flat diameter limit on future timber cuts, saying they want to create a diverse, healthy mix of habitats. In some areas, that might mean cutting the larger trees. Overall, it would mean creating a “patchy” forest, with open areas, meadows and some patches of thicker forests, say Forest Service officials. Moreover, Forest Service officials say that the timber company has to cut enough of the larger trees to ensure a profit sufficient to cover the cost of also removing the brush and saplings that have little commercial value.
The conservation groups have agreed on the need to design a timber cut that produces varied forest habitats, but remained wary of whether the Forest Service and timber companies would use the restoration project as an excuse to return to cutting the remaining big trees.
That’s why the immediate objections raised by the Centers for Biological Diversity cast a shadow over what should have been a triumph of consensus and compromise.
The Centers for Biological Diversity and other conservationist organizations spent years battling Marlin Johnson when he served as the Forest Service’s top timber harvest official in the Southwest.
“Much of the Southwest’s last old-growth was liquidated on Marlin Johnson’s watch during his years at the Forest Service,” said Taylor McKinnon. “It was wrong then and it’s wrong now, and the fact that Mr. Johnson is wearing a different hat this time underlines that fact.”
McKinnon noted that Pioneer was one of four bidders on the restoration contract. One of the other bidders — Arizona Forest Restoration Products — had produced a plan based on harvesting only trees less than 16 inches in diameter. The company had also signed a memo of understanding with conservation groups promising to use forest restoration cuts to ensure both fire protection and wildlife diversity.
“Today’s decision, among many other signs, suggests that the Forest Service’s leadership, after all these years and despite mountains of restoration rhetoric to the contrary, remains hopelessly mired in an antiquated age of agricultural forestry,” McKinnon concluded.