After two years and $2 million worth of studies, the Forest Service is ready to plunge headlong into thinning 64,000 acres to protect the watershed of the C.C. Cragin Reservoir.

The Coconino National Forest is seeking bidders to harvest 86,000 tons of saw timber and pulpwood in a 3,500-acre chunk of the watershed. The minimum bid is set at roughly $114,000.

Hopefully, a logging company will bid on the project — although efforts to find contractors elsewhere for similar thinning projects have lagged years behind the original schedules.

Even if the Forest Service quickly finds a bidder, it will likely take five years or more to work through the 64,000-acre watershed — with the possibility of a wildfire disaster looming every season.

The project represents a ground-breaking effort to protect a town’s water supply by restoring the forest health across an entire watershed. Payson, the Salt River Project and the National Forest Foundation joined forces with the Forest Service to protect the 15,000-acre-foot reservoir. Payson has built a $53 million pipeline to bring 3,000 acre-feet of water annually to town. SRP delivers roughly another 11,000 acre-feet of water to Phoenix.

A wildfire on the watershed could not only destroy infrastructure for the pipeline, it would result in a dramatic increase in erosion that would fill the reservoir with silt.

The Forest Service spent $2 million on an environmental study of the entire thinning project, which took two years. That may sound like a lot of money and a lot of time — but it actually represents a dramatic change in the process. Historically, the Forest Service has done such studies on individual timber sales. But this time the study covered the entire watershed, making it possible to streamline timber sales for years to come.

However, elements of the prescription for the timber sales remains controversial.

The Center for Biological Diversity protested that the plan doesn’t adequately protect big, old-growth trees on the watershed. The proposal includes more exceptions for cutting down pines bigger than 16 inches in diameter than do the rules for the Four Forest Restoration Initiative — which covers a much larger area, but also includes the C.C. Cragin watershed.

Historically, the ponderosa pine forest was dominated by big trees with an average density of 30 to 50 trees per acre. After a century of logging, grazing and fire suppression, Arizona forests are dominated by trees 5 to 15 inches in diameter at densities closer to 800 to 1,000 per acre.

This makes at least half of the C.C. Cragin watershed vulnerable to crown fires, which means a wildfire can spread from tree to tree — making it almost impossible to stop in dry windy conditions.

Such superheated crown fires kill every tree and scorch the soil. This often results in a dramatic increase in flooding, erosion and soil stripping. For instance, the 137,000-acre Hayman Fire in Colorado stripped the watershed above a reservoir used by Denver. The city in two years spent $25 million dredging the reservoir and millions more trying to restore the watershed. The silt caused water quality declines and massive fish kills as well.

The running argument about the plight of the big trees has bedeviled logging in the Southwest for decades. The old timber industry concentrated on those large, profitable trees — leaving the smaller trees behind for later harvest. Combined with grazing and fire suppression, this set up the crisis in forest health and tree densities.

Environmentalists spent years filing lawsuits to slow or block timber sales focused on the big trees, arguing that the big trees were less prone to wildfires and crucial to wildlife and forest structure.

The harvest of most of the big trees combined with the effect of the lawsuits and administrative appeals all but shut down the logging industry in the Southwest — leaving only a handful of smaller companies still available for the new generation of forest restoration thinning projects.

The 4FRI project took a dramatic new approach by including loggers, environmentalists and local officials in the process. The key to agreement proved an agreement to focus mostly on the smaller trees. The Large Tree Retention Strategy essentially says the thinning projects will only cut trees larger than 16 inches in diameter in special circumstances. That could include thinning dense clusters of big trees, opening up meadows, benefiting endangered species, creating buffer zones around subdivisions or other very specific issues.

The C.C. Cragin watershed project essentially wrote its own Large Tree Retention Strategy, rather than adopting the arduously hashed-out approach included in 4FRI. The Center for Biological Diversity filed a protest saying the rules were much too vague, leaving far too many large trees vulnerable.

The watershed project allowed cutting pines up to 18 inches in diameter for several reasons. For starters, the rules appeared to move the threshold for an old-growth tree meriting protection from 16 inches up to 18 inches. Moreover, the loggers could take 18-inch trees to enhance the growth of oaks in areas used by spotted owls. They could also take 18-inch trees in areas near subdivisions or infrastructure. With so large a defined buffer zone it could include 80 percent of the watershed, making the protections for the large trees all but meaningless, according to a protest filed by the Center for Biological Diversity.

Regional Forester Calvin Joyner for the most part rejected the protest, saying the project had no obligation to follow the plan laid out for 4FRI. He did remove reference to the “wildland-urban interface,” which the Center said had opened 80 percent of the project area to the removal of the big trees.

He said previous plans to protect Mexican spotted owls and goshawks barred the removal of trees greater than 24 inches in diameter — not 18 inches.

Mogollon Rim District Ranger Linda Wadleigh, heading up the project for the Forest Service, said the project will preserve as many of the large, fire-resistant trees as possible.

However, she said the carefully crafted exceptions will help the project, wildlife and forest health. Many of the big trees removed will do things like restore sight lines from a fire lookout tower and break up the interlocking branches needed to carry a crown fire from tree to tree.

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Protect the water supply, promote a healthier forest, reduce the threat of wildfire, upset the enviro-notzees... what's not to like?

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