The U.S. Forest Service has released an “unprecedented” draft environmental assessment on plans to use mechanical thinning and controlled burns to restore a million acres of dense, overcrowded forest to more healthy conditions.
“It’s unprecedented in terms of the size,” said Henry Provencio, project team leader for the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI). “We looked at a million acres. And we’re proposing mechanical treatments on up to 400,000 and nearly 600,000 acres of burning. The sheer size of it is significant — and so is the shift that we’re making toward restoration. The primary objective is restoring our forest. The resulting change in fire behavior, water yield, wildlife habitat and supplying wood for industry — those are essentially by-products.”
The environmental assessment focuses on more than 1 million acres in the Coconino and Kaibab National Forests. The report concluded the project would reduce the percentage of the forest treated subject to crown fires from 34 percent to 10 percent. It would reduce the percentage of forest prone to bark beetle infestations from 84 percent to about 26 percent. It would also result in the decommissioning of nearly 1,000 miles of road and the installation of hundreds of miles of elk fencing to protect vanishing aspen groves.
The project hopes to create a diverse forest with many more open areas, some remaining patches of thick forest, more springs, meadows and grasslands and a far greater resistance to forest-killing crown fires and infestations of insects and mistletoe.
The Forest Service will collect comments on the environmental assessment for the next 60 days. However, Provencio said he hopes the contractor will start thinning already approved projects totaling some 15,000 acres this summer. That will hopefully include portions of the 27,000-acre Myrtle Project along the base of the Mogollon Rim along the Control Road intended to protect the communities of Christopher Creek, Tonto Village and others from the threat of wildfire.
However, the just released environmental assessment focuses on land in the Coconino and Kaibab forests — since the Tonto Forest has already completed assessments of large tracts for thinning projects totaling some 70,000 acres.
The effort to contract with a timber company to thin some 50,000 acres annually and unleash controlled burns on another 50,000 acres annually represents the leading effort to restore forest health and natural fire cycles to some 6 million acres of ponderosa pine forests in Northern Arizona — including almost all of Rim Country.
A century of overgrazing and fire suppression snuffed out the small, cool ground fires that once burned through most areas once or twice every decade. Tree densities increased a hundred-fold and the region now faces the grave danger of soil-sterilizing, town-destroying crown fires. The vast majority of ponderosa pines in Rim Country today sprouted in about 1920, resulting in a crowded monoculture of stunted pines all the same size. In the past decade, the two largest fires in Arizona history charred a million acres between them.
The groundbreaking 4FRI project stemmed from years of effort to form a consensus among environmentalists, loggers, biologists, foresters, researchers and local officials on using a reinvented timber industry to thin a dangerously overgrown forest. The group agreed that the project should leave untouched the older trees greater than 16 inches in diameter and instead focus on the suffocating thickets of smaller trees.
The preferred alternative in the just-released environmental assessment embraces a “large tree preservation” strategy — but doesn’t include a cap on the size of trees cut. That omission could unravel the carefully balanced coalition of loggers, local officials and environmentalists that developed the 4FRI approach.
However, Provencio said that restoring a diverse and healthy forest will require cutting some of the larger trees in certain circumstances, like protecting meadows or springs. He noted that 80 percent of the trees cut would fall into the 5-14-inch category — with the remainder either smaller or larger. He said he expects the skeptical environmental groups will understand the need to cut some of the larger trees once they see the strategy in action.
“Trust is something you earn,” said Provencio, “So I don’t expect any trust until we go out and start implementing it and show the public that we did hear them and we’re doing what we said we were going to do.”
He said his team has developed guidelines so the contractor can create a diverse, patchy, healthy forest, without expensive, time-consuming marking of each individual tree required by the current piecemeal system.
Provencio said the project would include monitoring of the cuts by teams that include many of the 30 organizations that helped develop the 4FRI approach. In addition, the team will develop ways to use aerial photography and satellite monitoring to make sure that the treatments follow the rules — and that those rules produce a diverse, healthy forest.
“We’ll have multi-party monitoring. Let’s go out and look at this together and make sure we’re doing what we said we were going to do and that we were meeting our objectives. I don’t expect any trust until we’ve earned it.”
The project spurred controversy last spring when the Forest Service awarded the contract to undertake a decade of thinning to Pioneer Forest Products, a start-up company that included as a consultant a former Forest Service forester who had long battled environmental groups. Local officials like Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin had favored awarding the contract to Arizona Forest Restoration Products, which helped develop the approach in the first place and offered to pay more for the contract than Pioneer.
However, the regional contracting office in Albuquerque awarded the contract to Pioneer, based in part on its plans for turning the small-diameter trees into products like finger-jointed furniture, flooring, trim and bio-diesel fuel. Martin and others expressed doubts about the feasibility of that plan and the company’s lack of both experience and financing.
Pioneer is still seeking financing to build a mill in Winslow to both make wood products and diesel fuel. The firm’s 10-year contract would give it the right to harvest wood on 300,000 acres. The company says it has a plan to build the plant on 500 acres in Winslow.
The company has said it hopes to break ground on the Winslow mill by June and that it will sell the wood from the 15,000 acres worth of projects slated for this summer to existing mills while it builds its own facility.
Meanwhile, the environmental assessment on the million acres in the Coconino and Kaibab forests estimates the decade-long project will generate about 1,700 jobs and about $78 million in labor-related income annually.
Provencio acknowledged that the effort to restore health and a natural fire sequence to millions of acres of badly overgrown forests represents a risky, difficult and still unpredictable gamble.
That’s especially true when it comes to the areas where the Forest Service hopes to use controlled burns during cool, damp parts of the year to thin the overgrown forests without first thinning those areas mechanically. The fires may kill many — even most — of the small trees. However, the low-intensity fires will probably not completely consume the trees they kill. As a result, the controlled burns could initially increase the supply of down, dead, flammable wood and debris.
“It’s just a step — a small step. If you’ve got 800 stems an acre and a fire burns through it, you’re not going to get restoration results.”
In some cases, it might take three to five controlled burns before an area returns to a “natural” condition, with 30 or 80 trees per acre — mostly large, fire-resistant trees with lots of grass in the wide-open areas between the big trees.
Moreover, the forest has deteriorated into an unhealthy, overcrowded state over decades. Many of the plants and animals that have adapted to those unnatural conditions, may struggle to now adapt to the shift. That’s especially true of animals thought to require areas of thick forest for foraging, nests and shelter — like Abert’s squirrels, Mexican spotted owls and goshawks.
As a result, the prescription calls for patches of thicker forest connected by threads of thicker growth along streams and canyons.
“Definitely it’s going to look much more open than it is today,” said Provencio. “However, there is really going to be a lot more diversity than what we see out there today. I fully expect people to be surprised at some of the areas when they first visit them.”
Even after treatments return the forest to a more natural and sustainable condition, forest managers may have to struggle to return fire to its ancient role in maintaining that healthy open forest — since many people in areas like Rim Country now live in the midst of the forest.
“Returning fire to its natural role is the goal. But the reality is that it’s almost impossible to predict whether there are going to be social political constraints in the future. Hopefully 20 or 30 years from now, forest managers won’t be saying ‘oh my gosh, what were these guys thinking?’”