Trying To Prepare For Disaster And Manage Resources, Despite Government Bureaucracy

Gila County Building in Payson

Gila County Building in Payson Photo by Andy Towle. |

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Local government must develop a plan in order to influence federal policy on things like forest restoration, wildfire management, endangered species and off-road use, the executive director of the Eastern Arizona Counties Organization told the Gila County Board of Supervisors this week.

“We believe that these counties can have tremendous influence because we sit on most of the forest and watershed, which makes us a very important part of Arizona,” said Dr. Pascal Berlioux at the Aug. 19 meeting.

A key figure in the effort to reinvent the timber industry to thin the forest and reduce the rising threat of catastrophic wildfire, Berlioux urged the county to get involved in the process of selecting a federal contractor.

“Our motive is simple,” said Berlioux. “We don’t care who gets the contract, just get the job done. You have selected a contractor, get them to perform. We are done with the nice talk — we need action.”

Apache, Gila, Graham, Greenlee and Navajo counties formed the Eastern Arizona Counties Organization (ECO) to help develop a joint response to federal actions that affect the state’s five easternmost counties.

Berlioux took over as executive director after losing the bid for the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) contract to thin 300,000 acres in the next decade. He got involved in that effort after running Oriented Strand Board operations in France, which turned wood scraps and small trees into a form of high-tech plywood and composite lumber. He worked closely with Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin and other originators of the 4FRI approach to develop a plan to harvest small trees while leaving the remaining big trees alone.

When the Forest Service awarded the bid instead to Pioneer Forest Products, Berlioux dissolved his timber company and took the top job at ECO.

At the helm of ECO, he lobbies for the rural counties, with protection and forest restoration on the top of the list.

“When it comes to forest restoration, you know the name of the game is 4FRI and I can candidly say it’s not going well,” said Berlioux with a voice full of passion as he spoke to the supervisors. “One part is contracting and the other part is on implementation.”

Berlioux said Pioneer has removed only a tiny portion of the forest it was hired to clear. The original contract called for Pioneer to clear 5,000 acres by 2012, 15,000 in 2013 and 30,000 acres annually after that. Instead, Berlioux reported that Pioneer has so far thinned a total of 500 acres.

In protest, ECO members Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin, Navajo County Supervisor David Tenney, Apache County Supervisor Barry Weller, Graham County Supervisor Drew John and Greenlee County Supervisor David Gomez have drafted a letter to the U.S. Undersecretary for Natural Resources to ask that the office oversee a blue ribbon panel to research the science behind the 4FRI project.

Berlioux reminded the Gila County supervisors that Payson could go up in smoke in a Wallow-type megafire. Even fires that don’t consume communities can ruin watersheds, including the watershed that sustains the Valley.

Berlioux said Senators Jeff Flake and John McCain, along with Congressman Paul Gosar are working to challenge the Forest Service and move the project along.

Berlioux said the ECO is also concerned about the lack of a travel management plan on the Tonto National Forest. The draft plan has many flaws, he added.

Congress ordered every forest to come up with a plan to control and contain cross-country travel by off-road vehicles, due to the damage caused by an explosion of use. However, the Tonto Forest has lagged years behind other forests in adopting a travel management plan, which bans cross-country travel in most areas and designates certain roads for use.

“The rules of the travel management plan need to adapt to the culture of the area,” he said. “The travel management plan needs something that will actually make sense.”

When Berlioux spoke of endangered species, he focused on the jaguar and the Mexican wolf.

Berlioux works closely with the Center for Biological Diversity. He briefly touched on how the predator species affect Arizona.

“We have filed designated habitat for the jaguar — if we show no impact on the property, don’t worry about it,” said Berlioux. “There is no example of any problems, so we are taking a fairly strong position on this especially since the requirement to file for the critical habitat of the jaguar takes time.”

The wolf is a different matter, however. Historically, ranchers say wolves prey on their cattle and played a role in hunting them into extinction in the West. As scientists have studied the wolf and its place in the world, they have discovered it is critical — for instance preventing population explosions of deer and elk.

“With the wolf, they all know what’s happening ... if we want to get rid of the Mexican wolf it’s going to take 280 votes in the House, the Senate and a signature from the White House ... We can remove wolves that are the perpetrator of livestock depreciation. The way we are looking at the issues — it’s not whether the wolf should or should not be here.”

Wrapping up his presentation to the supervisors, Berlioux touched on natural resource management — a hot button with people who argue a return to large scale logging, grazing and mining would bring needed revenue to the state to pay for education, roads and infrastructure.

“Right now, we are working to restore the five counties’ critical role in the process,” said Berlioux. “There is policy that requires the federal government to work with the local governments. Problem is that most of the time counties don’t have a natural resource plan. So the feds say, ‘We’re willing to work with you, but you do not have a plan so we will do what we want.’”

Berlioux said the five counties formed ECO in part to develop a joint plan for resource management by next year that will give local governments a seat at the federal table.

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