Controversial Forest Restoration Contractor Draws Vote Of Support

However, doubts linger about massive thinning project


The 4-Forest Restoration Initiative plans to thin small trees from the overgrown forests in an effort to reduce the risk of massive fires like last year’s Wallow Fire.

The 4-Forest Restoration Initiative plans to thin small trees from the overgrown forests in an effort to reduce the risk of massive fires like last year’s Wallow Fire.

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We’ve had our differences — but we’re behind you now.

That’s the message in a resolution adopted by the diverse group of environmentalists, loggers and local officials supporting the U.S. Forest Service’s controversial choice of a private contractor to launch the landmark 4-Forest Restoration Initiative.

The resolution by the 4FRI Stakeholder’s Group acknowledged the “concerns” expressed about relying on Pioneer Forest Products to thin 300,000 acres of overgrown forest in the next 10 years. However, the group concluded it is “committed to working constructively with existing and emerging industries, the Forest Service, and other interested parties to achieve our shared goals of economic sustainability, community protection and ecological restoration.”

Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin — one of the driving forces in the 4FRI movement — was among those openly questioning whether Pioneer had the financing or expertise to undertake the massive thinning project, which depend on the contractor building bio-fuel plants and mills that could turn a profit on millions of saplings and small trees.

Locked in a campaign for re-election now, she says her doubts about Pioneer’s financing remain — but the effort now relies on Pioneer’s success. Martin has played a leadership role in the effort to convince the U.S. Forest Service to thin fire-prone thickets on the outskirts of Rim Country communities. She has also spearheaded the effort to post water-filled bladders strategically throughout the region to enable fire trucks and firefighting helicopters to quickly fill up storage tanks to contain brush fires.

Meanwhile, other recent developments have advanced the effort to use a revitalized timber industry to thin millions of acres in Northern Arizona where a century of grazing and fire suppression have created an overgrown, tree-choked forest.

Tree densities across most of the ponderosa pine forests of Northern Arizona have increased from perhaps 30 per acre to closer to 800 per acre in the past century, according to researchers from Northern Arizona University. A once-open, fire-adapted forest now generates an increasing number of massive crown fires, which threaten to incinerate forested communities.

It costs up to $1,000 per acre to thin and burn off the slash piles, which means it would cost taxpayers about $6 billion annually to thin those forests by hand. The 4FRI approach would give private contractors a guaranteed 10- or 20-year supply of mostly small-diameter trees as an inducement to invest millions in building mills and power plants that could turn a profit on the vast oversupply of small trees.

The 4FRI approach could get a boost in November if Flagstaff voters approve a $10 million bond issue to raise money to support forest-thinning projects in the Lake Mary watershed. Backers say that a crown fire that killed all the trees and scorched the soil would result in a dramatic increase in silt building up in Lake Mary, endangering Flagstaff’s already precarious water supply.

The Schultz Fire two years ago demonstrated the risk to the city. The fire roared through an area that had been earmarked for a 4FRI project. The monsoon rains that followed caused mudslides that inflicted millions of dollars of additional damage on homes.

As it happens, Payson officials hope that the Forest Service will schedule the watershed above the Blue Ridge Reservoir for a 4FRI thinning project as quickly as possible. The area collects more rain and snow than any similar sized area in the state, since it catches the moisture that drops from storm systems that climb over the barrier of the Mogollon Rim. The rain and snowmelt collect in the deep, narrow, winding Blue Ridge Reservoir. A crown fire on the watershed could easily heat the soils enough to make them “hydrophobic,” which would dramatically increase runoff and silting in the reservoir.

The Forest Service has also nearly completed work on an unprecedented environmental assessment on the impacts of dramatically reducing tree densities on the first 300,000 acres of what could ultimately prove a 6-million-acre project. Historically, the Forest Service has completed environmental assessments of each individual timber sale. The new approach would analyze the effects of creating a certain mix of habitats, with open meadows, a thinned forest, thick patches for sensitive species like the Mexican Spotted Owl and different treatments for the areas around streams. The assessment would then provide a framework for the thinning project, with Forest Service biologists and habitat specialists working with the private contractor as the tree-cutters moved through each area.

The bold approach relied heavily on years of work by the 4FRI Stakeholder’s Group, which hashed out an approach that for the first time unified environmental groups and loggers. That consensus rested on the agreement across the board to focus on small trees, while leaving uncut most old-growth trees greater than 16 inches in diameter. Those big trees used to dominate the forest, where brush fires burned through every five to 10 years. The low-intensity fires burned up the brush and saplings and returned nutrients to the soil, generally without hurting the big trees, whose lowest branches were generally 15 feet above the ground.

However, the Forest Service adopted many of the recommendations of the Stakeholder Group, but refused to commit to the preservation of most of the larger trees. Forest Service biologists reasoned that in some areas those larger trees exist in relatively dense clusters.

That refusal to set a clear size limit on the trees caused concern among some members of the Stakeholder Group, including Martin — who found herself in the unusual position of agreeing with the Centers for Biological Diversity, which had spent years suing to block timber projects on the grounds they continued to target the big, fire-resistant trees.

The selection of Pioneer after almost two years of study and delay initially posed a near-mutiny among the Stakeholder Group. Pioneer actually offered to pay the Forest Service millions less for the bid than did the contractor who had spent years working with the Stakeholder Group. Moreover, Pioneer omitted any money for monitoring whether the thinning projects had the desired impact on wildlife and watersheds.

Martin also raised concerns about whether Pioneer had enough financing — and a business plan that would yield a profit on turning small trees into energy and into furniture.

Forest Service officials in the Southwestern Regional Office in New Mexico made the selection, without direct input from the Stakeholder’s Group.

Pioneer has said it remains on track to start work in the spring. Marlin Johnson said the company will start off with already-prepared timber sales and send the wood it harvests to existing mills, while the company continues to line up financing for its own mills.

The company plans to build a 500-acre plant near Winslow, which will convert small trees into finger-jointed materials, like furniture and other wood products. The company also plans to build a bio-diesel fuel plant, which would turn brush and scraps into diesel.

Johnson noted that Western Energy Solutions/Concord Blue USA will build and operate the bio-diesel plant.

However, Pioneer has yet to announce any firm commitment for financing of the thinning projects or the Winslow plant.

The Forest Service has posted on its Web site a portion of the draft of the environmental assessment on thinning the first 600,000 acres.

The draft assessment concluded that more than half of the forest has lapsed into dense stands of trees of nearly all of the same age. In more natural conditions, frequent low-intensity fires create a patch forest — with many open areas and meadows, extensive stands of aspen, oak and other trees and large areas dominated giant, old-growth ponderosa. Such a patchy forest supports a much greater diversity of plants and animals and remains much less vulnerable to crown fires and bark beetle infestations.

The analysis concluded that a third of the area now faces the grave threat of crown fires, in which a fire moves from tree-top to tree-top with devastating results. Two thirds of the existing forest also now face the danger of high-intensity ground fires, which means tons of debris has accumulated on the forest floor. In such conditions, the fires can easily burn so hot that they sterilize the soil and leave it unable to absorb water normally.

Ironically, the risk of crown fire remains twice as great in areas set aside to protect old-growth species like the Mexican Spotted Owl. Forest Service guidelines say those species do best nesting in thick stands of trees and hunting beneath a relatively closed forest canopy. Those patches of dense forest existed in natural conditions, but they were generally protected by surrounding open areas. Now, the entire forest has closed in, with the spotted owl breeding areas becoming especially dense.

The study concluded that a third of the ponderosa pines in the study area have grown so stressed and thirsty that they would fall easy prey to bark beetle infestations. The thickets of trees compete fiercely for rainfall, especially in the intermittent but severe drought that has reduced average rainfall by about half over the past decade.

The study noted that the thickets of trees struggling to survive the drought conditions have grasped at every drop at water, which has dried up many forest streams. For instance, Pine Creek once ran year-round. In recent years, it runs through Pine only after a big rain.

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