What a mess.

The Forest Service has spent more than a decade trying to find loggers who could thin millions of acres of overgrown, fire-prone forests. It touted the Four Forest Restoration Initiative as a visionary way to restore the forests, protect forested communities from wildfires and safeguard the vulnerable watershed on which millions of Arizonans depend.

But this month after years seeking a magic formula to get loggers to do the job at no cost to the taxpayer — the Forest Service returned to the drawing board.

What the heck happened?

Consider one niggling detail.

Assume you convince a logging company to invest millions on mills to process a million acres of small trees and mountains of biomass.

How do they get the loads of logs and brush out of the forest?

Turns out, the Forest Service in northern Arizona has accumulated some $65 million in backlogged road maintenance costs, according to the Forest Service report on the plan to turn 4FRI into a combination of piecemeal logging projects, prescribed burns and search for new partners with deep pockets.

The revelation came after the Forest Service’s canceled a yearlong effort to strike a deal with one or two finalist contractors to thin 520,000 acres in Rim Country and the White Mountains over the next 20 years The Forest Service finally pulled the plug on negotiations due to the lack of contract guarantees and the infrastructure necessary for the massive effort.

So today, let’s just focus on the sorry plight of the thousands of miles of dirt roads that snake through the forest — many of them in such poor shape loggers can’t rely on them to undertake the million acres of thinning projects the 4FRI plan envisions.

Back in the old days, loggers could make so much money harvesting the giant, fire-resistant old growth ponderosa pines and oaks they could maintain, build and recondition roads and still make a nice profit.

But they’ve now removed most of the giant, 28-inch diameter, centuries-old trees, which once grew in densities averaging about 50 or 100 per acre. Clear cutting, fire suppression and overgrazing have profoundly changed the forest. Now, thickets of spindly trees total some 1,000 stems per acre. The region lacks the mills to handle the small stuff, which means someone has to invest millions in new facilities. Worse yet, contractors can’t make money off the wood scraps and biomass that makes up half of the material they must remove — especially after the Arizona Corporation Commission eliminated incentives for power companies to burn biomass.

So that means the contractors the Forest Service hoped would save the forests — and towns nestled in the tree thickets — can’t afford to rebuild and maintain the network of roads.

The numbers in the most recent report made the dilemma clear.

• The million acres of 4FRI thinning projects include 73 critical bridges and nearly 13,000 miles of road. That includes 11,000 miles of dirt roads and 2,000 of passenger car roads — only 126 miles of them paved.

• It costs $6 million to $10 million annually to maintain the 4FRI roads and another $3 million annually to maintain the bridges. The Forest Service typically spends only a fraction of the necessary amount — although an explosion of weekend ATV use has trashed many dirt roads.

• The total deferred maintenance costs have reached $65 million, including $41 million for roads and $24 million for bridges.

• Completing the high-priority bridge projects needed to come anywhere near the goal of harvesting 50,000 acres annually will take three to five years to complete — once the Forest Service finds the money.

The Forest Service on Oct. 12 held a roundtable with local officials, environmentalists and industry groups and agreed that restoration and thinning contracts can’t cover the cost of the backlogged and ongoing road maintenance needs, even if contractors can figure out how to make money on biomass and small trees.

Therefore, the Forest Service acknowledged the need to find the money somewhere else, including developing the road building and maintenance infrastructure needed.

“Timber sales support road maintenance and reconstruction, but low value timber does not cover this expense. The steady decrease in the number of timber sales over the last 30 years does not cover road maintenance.”

However, the massive scale of the proposed restoration effort requires a vast, well-maintained network of roads.

“These are essential to access acres, reduce haul times, distances, and minimize annual maintenance costs,” concluded the Forest Service report.

Previously 4FRI reports did not emphasize the condition of the roads, on the assumption the cost of road upgrades and maintenance would come from the sale of the timber — once it found the right contractor.

President Joe Biden this week signed a $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill, with billions allocated for poorly maintained roads and bridges. But it’s unclear whether that money will help solve the problem of dirt roads and bridges for logging trucks deep in the forest.

The bill also includes $38 million for forest restoration and wildfire prevention projects, but that’s just an ember in a firestorm given the scale of the wildfire danger now facing the entire West.

The size of wildfires in the West has grown catastrophically in the past 20 years, driven by a combination of drought, climate change and a century of management decisions that have increased tree densities. U.S. insurers shelled out some $13 billion to cover wildfire damage in the western U.S. in 2020, according to an analysis by Risk Management Solutions (RMS), as reported by Reuters. Northern California accounted for perhaps $7 billion of the total.

In 2020, wildfires killed 30 people, destroyed 8,500 structures and scorched 4 million acres. The Forest Service now spends $2 billion to $3 billion annually fighting fires — about half its total budget. The struggle to fight the fires often leaves little money for the restoration projects that would reduce the toll of those fires. Back when Arizona’s ponderosa pine forests were dominated by widely spaced, old-growth trees — ground fires burned through every five to seven years, doing more good than harm by returning nitrogen to the soil and thinning the saplings.

The goal of 4FRI has always been to first restore the timber industry, so it could make money on restoring the forest.

Assuming, those logging trucks have roads to drive on and bridges to cross.

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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