Environmental groups say a forest-thinning project on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon confirms their worst fears about the Forest Service management of the troubled forest thinning contracts.
The festering dispute centers on whether the Forest Service will leave standing huge, old-growth ponderosa pines while using a private contractor to thin the thickets of trees that even environmental groups agree pose a grave danger to both forest health and forested communities.
The issue lies a the heart of the landmark 4-Forests Restoration Initiative, which seeks to thin millions of acres at no cost to the taxpayers by providing private contractors with a long-term contract to cut thickets of small trees — while leaving the big, fire-resistant, old-growth trees standing.
However, the refusal by the U.S. Forest Service to adopt a limit on the size of trees cut under the project has spurred criticisms of some of the groups that developed the 4-FRI approach, which had inspired a coalition of environmentalists and loggers.
Now, environmental groups are pointing at a proposed thinning project on the North Rim of the Grand Canyon to explain why they’re skeptical of the Forest Service approach to forest restoration.
The analysis of the proposed forest restoration project suggests that 30 percent of the trees and 70 percent of the wood volume would come from the trees larger than 16 inches in diameter, which the original 4-FRI approach would have made virtually off limits.
“At a time when the Forest Service claims to be working with stakeholders to do the right thing, the Wild Buck timber sale is a vivid example of what’s wrong with the agency. Its addiction to logging big, old trees and its refusal to collaborate in management of public forests demonstrates a need for better leadership and reform,” said Jay Lininger, a senior scientist with the Center for Biological Diversity.
A coalition of local officials, environmentalists and loggers spent years developing a joint approach to restoring forest health and reducing the dire wildfire danger that rested on a “large tree retention strategy.” The group agreed loggers could make money on the small trees choking millions of acres while leaving almost all of the ponderosa pines larger than 16 inches in diameter standing.
That agreement promised to break a legal deadlock in the face of a dramatic increase in wildfires in the past decade.
Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin has spent years with the group working out an agreement intended to put the timber industry back to work while convincing environmental groups they didn’t need to keep filing lawsuits to protect the remaining big trees.
The Forest Service eventually adopted most of those recommendations, but said it needed flexibility when it came to deciding how many of the big trees to let the private contractors cut. The Forest Service awarded the contract initially to Pioneer Forest Products, and then agreed to shift the contract to Good Earth Inc. when Pioneer couldn’t get financing to build mills to handle the small trees.
Supervisor Martin has repeatedly expressed concerns about the shift in contractors and the Forest Service’s refusal to adopt the 4-FRI approach to saving large trees, fearing it would lead to renewed deadlock and lawsuits.
The shift in contractors has put the project almost two years behind schedule before it even starts. The original timeline called for the contractor to have thinned about 60,000 acres by now. Instead, the two contractors combined have actually thinned a little more than 1,000 acres.
All that makes the Jacob Ryan Project along Highway 89 in the Kaibab National Forest something of a test case for the Forest Service approach to forest restoration.
The 26,000-acre project actually dates back to 1998 and at one time included an 18-inch diameter cap. However, the Forest Service analysis concluded it would have to cut some big trees to benefit the endangered Northern Goshawk, which hunts in a closed forest canopy.
The analysis says that on average the project area has tree densities of between 245 and 295 trees per acre, with many areas with densities exceeding 451 trees per acre.
Other studies suggest pre-settlement ponderosa pine forests had tree densities closer to 30 to 50 trees per acre, with great variations between isolated areas with greater densities.
The Center for Biological Diversity sent out its own analysts to review the proposed timber cut for the 400-acre “Wild Buck” project. The analysis concluded the Forest Service has marked for cutting on that 400 acres no fewer than 1,174 old growth trees greater than 24 inches in diameter, accounting for 38 percent of the wood volume. Trees greater than 16 inches would account for 30 percent of the trees cut and 78 percent of the timber volume.
Those giant, centuries-old trees are generally very resistant to wildfires. Their lowest branches are often 20 feet or more above the ground, out of the reach of low-intensity ground fires. They once dominated the ponderosa pine forests, but now represent only 1-3 percent of the trees in the forest. However, they’re by far the most profitable tree for most existing mills to process.
The 4-FRI project rests on the assumption timber companies will invest in mills that can turn little trees into fuel, furniture, energy and other products. However, so far few such mills exist.
The Forest Service did stimulate the development of a small-wood industry in the White Mountains of Arizona with the White Mountain Stewardship Project. But that required a taxpayer subsidy of $800 to $1,000 for each acre thinned. The thinned buffer areas may well have saved Greer, Alpine and Springerville from the Wallow Fire, but the Forest Service ran out of money to pay the per-acre thinning subsidy and the project has all but died.
The 4-FRI project envisioned thinning more than 50,000 acres annually, providing enough wood to convince corporations to invest millions in building wood-burning power plants, operations to turn tree slash into jet fuel, wood-pellet plants and even furniture plants. That could eliminate the need for any taxpayer payment to thin millions of acres.
However, so far, none of those alternative plants exist.
And that brings the economic question back to the big trees, which take centuries to reach a fire-resistant size — and so to the Wild Buck project.
The survey of that first 400 acres seems to have confirmed fears the Forest Service remains fixed on cutting many of the remaining old trees. Most of the lawsuits that blocked timber sales in the past 20 years have focused on those same trees.
“This is the ‘flexibility’ that resulted in the decades of litigation, and which we assumed would be avoided with 4-FRI,” said Center for Biological Diversity co-founder Robin Silver.