A long-awaited effort to restore forest health through commercial thinning projects will get under way in June near Show Low, the U.S. Forest Service has announced.
The Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) will start with a project to cut trees larger than one inch in diameter on 1,000 acres over the next 18 months.
Ultimately, the contract calls for Pioneer Forest Products to thin 30,000 acres annually for the next 10 years, but the Forest Service has extended the contract awarded a year ago to give Pioneer time to get a loan and build the bio-fuel and small-wood-products sawmill
it has promised to operate in Winslow.
“This is the beginning of restoration work that will treat an average of 30,000 acres per year on the Coconino, Kaibab, Apache-Sitgreaves and Tonto national forests over the next nine years and is an important step for the 4FRI — a 20-year plan to restore 2.4 million acres of ponderosa pine forest in northern Arizona,” according to a Forest Service release.
Loggers, local officials, environmentalists and researchers spent years hammering out a consensus on the need to thin millions of trees smaller than 16 inches in diameter. The loggers and the environmentalists worked out long-standing conflicts when they agreed that commercial logging operations could make a profit even if they left most of the larger trees in place. As a result, the loggers could restore millions of acres to more natural conditions — reducing tree densities from perhaps 1,000 per acre to more like 30 to 50 per acre.
They hoped such a privately financed thinning program would not only restore forest ecosystems, but dramatically reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfires that could not only destroy whole towns, but permanently alter forest composition.
However, the once-solid backing for the project began to fragment when the U.S. Forest Service altered the prescription and then picked a controversial contractor. The Forest Service said it would not abide by the 16-inch limit on tree cutting for the restoration project, the requirement that helped convince the loggers and environmentalists to join forces. Perhaps more importantly, the Forest Service picked Pioneer, instead of another timber company that had been involved in the early negotiations. That company had offered a higher price and promised to include monitoring to make sure the forest did end up in a better condition as a result of the thinning.
Instead, the Forest Service contracting office in Albuquerque, N.M. selected Pioneer, which included as a partner a retired Forest Service forester who had fought repeated battles with environmental groups about timber harvesting.
Key players like Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin also raised questions about Pioneer’s plans for turning the millions of small trees into saleable products. Pioneer’s proposed biofuel process has never been commercially successful, she said. In addition, the finger-jointed furniture plant Pioneer has promised to build in Winslow might have to struggle against similar operations in places like Indonesia, with lots of tropical forest and cheap labor.
Still, the Forest Service hailed Pioneer’s agreement to get started next month. The timber company will sell the trees it harvests to existing mills.
Earlier, the Forest Service had said it expected Pioneer to thin 15,000 acres this year, the first year in its decade-long, 300,000-acre contract.
Rim Country has a vital stake in the success of the 4FRI effort. An already studied and prepared thinning project that would complete a system of thinned buffer zones around Rim Country communities was included in the first batch of proposed projects. That project would thin thousands of acres along the Control Road to protect Tonto Village and Christopher Creek.
In addition, Payson officials hope the Forest Service will include in an early batch a project to thin the thickly forested slopes on the watershed that feeds into the Blue Ridge Reservoir, on which the town’s future water supply depends. Crown fires in overgrown forests can not only kill virtually all the trees, but also alter the soil so it doesn’t absorb water as well. As a result, a severe fire on the Blue Ridge watershed could cause years of subsequent mudslides and erosion that would dramatically decrease the capacity of the reservoir.
The communities of Rim Country are among the most fire-menaced settlements in the country, according to some estimates. The Tonto National Forest has proved adept at preparing thinning projects then scooping up year-end Forest Service money. The Payson Ranger District has therefore spent millions of dollars thinning thousands of acres to complete buffer zones around Payson, Whispering Pines, Mesa del Caballo, East Verde Estates, Star Valley and other communities. Such thinning projects give firefighters a chance of stopping even a crown fire rushing toward a community from the surrounding, overgrown forest. Two years ago, such a buffer zone saved Alpine and Springerville from the Wallow Fire, the biggest fire in Arizona history.
The Forest Service is bracing to run the gauntlet of another forest fire season, having imposed fire restrictions across northern Arizona just before the Memorial Day weekend. The whole state has lapsed into severe to extreme drought conditions this spring, with the exception of an area centered on Gila County that is just “abnormally dry,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s drought monitor.
Two years ago, more acres burned nationwide than ever before in recorded history. Last year — 2012 — came in second. Ironically, the number of fires nationwide has actually declined since peaking in 2006, according to data from the National Interagency Fire Center, thanks presumably to strenuous efforts to reduce the number of fires in the drought-stricken West. The total number of reported fires dropped from a peak of about 90,000 in 2006 to about 30,000 in 2012. However, the number of acres burned increased from about 9 million acres in 2006 to nearly 10 million acres in 2012.
Many climate scientists link the dramatic rise in the number of “megafires” to the increase in average global temperatures, likely linked to the buildup of heat-trapping human pollutants.