Not so sure about the plan.
That’s the gist of Gila County’s reaction to the U.S. Forest Service’s environmental impact statement on the proposed thinning of two million acres to restore forest health and protect forested communities in Northern Arizona.
The county concluded the 4-Forests Restoration Initiative remains crucial to Rim Country’s future and supported the “overwhelming priority to complete landscape scale restoration as rapidly as possible for fear of massively disruptive landscape scale catastrophic crown fires and/or landscape scale insect of disease infestations.”
However, the Forest Service’s plan to cut big trees as it sees fit could unravel years of work that produced a remarkable agreement between environmentalists and loggers.
In essence, Gila County urged the Forest Service to not cut trees larger than 16 inches in diameter except in carefully defined circumstances. Even then, the contractor should involve the group of foresters, environmentalists, loggers and local officials who developed the original guidelines for the massive thinning and forest restoration project.
The county worried that ignoring the 16-inch limit will spur a return to lawsuits and deadlock. Instead, the Forest Service should respect the “social consensus” and observe “the absolute priority of implementing landscape-scale restoration as expeditiously as possible.”
The county’s long reply mirrored the concerns of Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin, a key member of the group of loggers and environmentalists that spent five years hammering out an agreement. The whole group agreed loggers could make money on small trees and thereby not only restore forest health, but also dramatically reduce the risk of devastating crown fires.
The U.S. Forest Service adopted that approach, but then wrote its own guidelines. First the Forest Service rejected the clear-cut limits on cutting big trees, then it picked as the contractor Pioneer Forest Products, over the objections of many people in the stakeholder’s group.
The Forest Service recently released the environmental impact statement on the impact of using mechanical thinning or controlled burns to dramatically reduce tree densities on two million acres in four Northern Arizona national forests, including the Tonto.
In careful, bureaucratic language, Gila County detailed its objection to key elements of the 4-FRI prescriptions, while still expressing urgent support.
Northern Arizona in the past decade has suffered a devastating sequence of record-breaking fires as a result of drought-stricken forests choked with tree thickets. The fires include the largest in state history, including the 538,000-acre Wallow Fire, the 460,000-acre Rodeo Chediski Fire, the 120,000-acre Willow Fire and the 244,000-acre Cave Creek Complex Fire. All of those fires have burned since the deadly 24,000-acre Dude Fire, which in 1990 was the largest fire in state history.
Gila County’s reply concluded that only quickly implementing 4-FRI could prevent such disasters from sweeping through forested communities.
The Forest Service proposal could destroy that consensus by not putting a limit on the size of trees cut, the county concluded.
“The county believes that while there is no overwhelming supporting science on either side of the long-debated issue of a universal diameter cap for restoration treatments (whether it be 9, 12, 16 or 18 inches), analyzing the issue from just a technical science perspective is at best incomplete, because the issue is also a social issue that cannot be adequately addressed by an exclusively scientific approach.”
The county concluded the frequent references to “adaptive management” were little more than “empty rhetoric” without any way to measure whether the treatments actually restored forest health.
In fact, the current plight in the forest arose from the consistent application of Forest Service prescriptions in the past century, usually without any systematic monitoring.
Other concerns raised by Gila County’s response included:
• Controlled burns: The county favored the use of controlled burns to thin as much acreage as quickly as possible, even if it reduced the wood the contractor had to sell. The county preferred the plan for the first million acres that would hand thin 435,000 acres and use controlled burns on nearly 600,000 acres to make the crucial, initial thin. Old growth ponderosa pine forests have about 50 trees per acre, while most of the forests in Northern Arizona now have closer to 1,000 trees per acre.
• Old Growth: The county favored maximizing the number of old growth forest stands. Forest plans aim for having about 20 percent of the forest in old growth condition. However, at present less than 5 percent of the forest remains in that healthy, fire-resistant condition — mostly in deep canyons and hilltops inaccessible to logging.
• Monitoring: The county challenged the lack of detail on how to measure the effect of the treatments. The comment harkens back to Martin’s concerns that the Forest Service picked Pioneer and rejected a bid from another contractor who not only offered to pay more, but also promised to devote far more money to.
• Open canopy: The county criticized the vague guidelines for creating a certain amount of openness in the thinned forest — basically a measure of the space between the trees. The plan included little science to determine how open the forest ought to be once the crews finished — and little provision for judging what was working as the project proceeded.