Forest Restoration Thinning Underway

Questions remain about big trees, contractor’s shifting business plan

The Mercer project thinning has dramatically reduced tree densities and will help add to the buffer zone protecting Christopher Creek, Tonto Village, Kohl’s Ranch and a string of small communities along the Control Road.

The Mercer project thinning has dramatically reduced tree densities and will help add to the buffer zone protecting Christopher Creek, Tonto Village, Kohl’s Ranch and a string of small communities along the Control Road. Photo by Pete Aleshire. |

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The Four Forest Restoration Initiative contractor Good Earth Power AZ wants to build a mill to handle millions of tons of small trees in Williams instead of Winslow, the latest wrinkle in a high-stakes forest thinning project on which Rim Country’s future may well depend.

The Forest Service has already approved the firm’s request to shift operations to Williams, which is further from the bulk of the land that needs thinning.

“Seems like it’s much further from the source of the timber,” said Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin, one of the handful of local officials, environmentalists and loggers who developed the 4FRI approach the Forest Service has vowed to implement on millions of acres in northern Arizona.

However, company officials say that a Williams location east of Flagstaff will prove more convenient for the early projects already underway, most of which are in the Kaibab and Coconino national forests around Flagstaff and up toward the Grand Canyon.

The 4FRI approach stems from years of effort by a group of loggers, local officials and environmentalists to find common ground, after a century of mismanagement followed by two decades of lawsuits and appeals that caused the collapse of the once-vital logging industry. In the past century, the loss of grass due to grazing and relentless fire suppression has increased tree densities from about 50 per acre to perhaps 1,000 per acre across vast swaths. The giant old-growth trees that once dominated the ponderosa pine forests now constitute about 2 percent of the trees in a forest choked with small trees vulnerable to crown fires.

The 4FRI group agreed that a revitalized timber industry could help restore forest health if it focused on the thickets of trees less than 16 inches in diameter, while leaving the larger trees alone.

However, since the Forest Service has taken up the initiative the once solid consensus has frayed mostly over concerns about the contractors chosen and the Forest Service’s refusal to accept a strict diameter limit on the trees cut.

Good Earth took over the stalled project from Pioneer Forest Products and initially agreed to follow the same business plan — which included a new mill in Winslow to both turn small trees and brush into energy and produce furniture from the small trees.

The shift to Williams is designed to take advantage of the initial flow of wood from already approved projects near Flagstaff, which faces grave danger from even small fires like the Shultz Fire, which destroyed homes and caused landslides and flooding off the denuded landscape.

Meanwhile, Good Earth has started work on thousands of acres of thinning contracts, with the wood going to existing, struggling mills — mostly in the White Mountains.

In Rim Country, Good Earth has started work on the 1,000-acre Mercer project on the outskirts of Christopher Creek. That project will help add to the buffer zone protecting Christopher Creek, Tonto Village, Kohl’s Ranch and a string of small communities along the Control Road from a megafire.

The Mercer project is among some 15,000 acres worth of initial task orders the Forest Service has awarded to Good Earth Power AZ as part of a 10-year contract to thin some 300,000 acres. Almost all of those initial task orders are previously approved thinning and forest restoration projects, most of them to create buffer zones to protect forested communities.

The thinning so far along Colcord Road has dramatically reduced tree densities. The crews have removed most of the small trees and much of the brush. Much of the slash has been fed into on-site mulchers and turned into sawdust, dumped into huge trucks and hauled away. The crews have also made great piles of the trunks of the larger trees.

A few other Rim Country projects are in the pipeline.

The Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests this week announced that the 1,300 Alder thinning project just north of Woods Canyon Lake will also become part of the 4FRI contract.

That previously analyzed project will protect one of the most popular tourism areas in Arizona from the effects of wildfire. It will probably also increase runoff into Woods Canyon Lake and other popular fishing and recreational areas.

The thinning project should increase watershed yields by dramatically reducing the number of trees competing for rainfall and snowmelt. The dramatic increase in forest densities in the past 50 years have dried up many once reliable springs and streams.

That’s one reason Payson has been pleading with the Forest Service to make a thinning project on the watershed of the Blue Ridge Reservoir a top priority. The town’s future water supply depends on the long, deep, narrow reservoir that gathers runoff from one of the most productive watersheds in the state. A crown fire on that thickly overgrown watershed could cause mudslides and erosion that would significantly reduce the capacity of the reservoir.

The Alder project is part of a much larger effort to thin and restore the forests atop the Rim that crowd a chain of popular, trout-stocked lakes, including Woods Canyon, Bear Canyon and Willow Springs.

The Forest Service is still analyzing a plan to thin a total of some 33,000 acres around those lakes to restore forest health, protect forested communities and protect forest-dependent species like the Mexican spotted owl. That project could also ultimately wind up as part of the 4FRI project.

However, the project also illustrates the continued struggle over the fate of the largest trees as part of the 4FRI approach.

A flat, easy-to-enforce ban on cutting most ponderosa pines larger than 16 inches in diameter lay at the heart of the 4FRI consensus. However, the Forest Service has said that a strict diameter cap would likely prove too inflexible. For instance, they might want the contractor to thin thick stands of bigger trees in certain circumstances — like producing more diversity and avoiding having all the trees in an area be the same age or protecting rare and valuable meadows.

Critics like Supervisor Martin fear that if the Forest Service insists on “flexibility” in cutting the big trees, the contractor will end up focusing on those bigger, higher-value trees.

The Environmental Impact Statement already prepared by the Forest Service for the 33,500-acre Rim Lakes Forest Restoration Project rejected the idea of a 16-inch diameter cap.

“Because the 16-inch cutting limit would require retention of more mid-sized trees, a greater number of small trees would need to be removed to meet the density objectives. Therefore, these stands would move toward even-aged conditions with fewer smaller sized trees available for future forest development,” according to the summary of the environmental impact statement for the project.

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