High hopes hit hard reality when the U.S. Forest Service last year sought bidders for a 3,500-acre timber sale on the watershed of the C.C. Cragin watershed — a reservoir that supplies both Payson and Phoenix with drinking water.
Blue Ridge District Head Ranger Linda Wadleigh said the Forest Service calculated the value of the saw timber at maybe $3.5 million. But mostly, forest managers wanted to get rid of the saplings, branches, brush and biomass that could carry a ground fire up into the tops of the centuries-old ponderosa pines and firs. The resulting crown fire could easily sear the soil, resulting in devastating floods that would fill the reservoir with mud.
That’s exactly what happened to Denver, which spent hundreds of millions dredging a vital reservoir after post-fire mudflows.
Only catch: Not a single logging company put in a bid.
The Forest Service has now regrouped, which may turn out to be one of those back to the future solutions.
The Forest Service has contracted with the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF) to undertake a stewardship contract, starting with the 3,500-acre General Springs timber sale. The Forest Service hopes the NWTF can find a logging company to cut the marketable trees and then use outside money to deal with the small trees and biomass. The Forest Service also has an existing agreement with the Salt River Project, Payson and the National Forest Foundation to plan and support restoration of the 64,000-acre watershed.
If that sounds familiar, you’re not imagining it.
The Forest Service tried a similar approach in eastern Arizona, where for 15 years it administered the White Mountain Stewardship Project. However, in that case the federal government kicked in about $1,000 per acre to offset the cost of dealing with the biomass. The approach thinned 50,000 acres in the course of 15 years, although the Forest Service never provided enough of a subsidy to get anywhere close to the planned 15,000 acres a year.
Nonetheless, the thinning projects completed are credited with saving Alpine and perhaps Springerville from the Wallow Fire.
“It should be the most important thing for folks in the Southwest to think about and be proactive for their source of water,” said NWTF biologist and stewardship contract manager Scott Lerich.“If it’s not, then I don’t know what our elected officials are doing. I can’t think of anything more important for everybody as a whole.”
The prospects for such a thinning project dimmed when the Arizona Corporation Commission rejected a proposal to require utilities to buy power generated by biomass.
Environmentalists, conservationist groups and local officials have all united behind the idea of thinning the forest to not only reduce the threat of catastrophic wildfires, but improve conditions for wildlife. The ponderosa pine forest of northern Arizona are adapted to frequent, low-intensity wildfires. But a century of fire suppression, grazing and logging have left them dangerously overcrowded with trees. Decades without regular, low-intensity fires have allowed millions of tons of biomass to build up on every acre of the forest floor.
Lerich said the C.C. Cragin watershed has excellent turkey habitat already — all of it threatened by a megafire. However, a stewardship approach would seek to create a habitat patchwork, including some thick stands of trees, open meadows, healthy riparian areas and a more open, grassy forest. Such a mix benefits most wildlife species, including both turkeys and endangered Mexican spotted owls.
“We’re involved in 114 stewardship projects around the country. I would like to see it expand to the entire C.C. Cragin watershed project area,” said Lerich. “It could take five or 10 years to get it done, but the agreement allows the flexibility to enlarge the project beyond General Springs as we add money or partners.”
He said despite the political support for the landmark Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI), little real help has been forthcoming from the state or federal governments.
The 4FRI project grew out of the White Mountain Stewardship Project, which spawned a nascent, small-tree logging industry in the White Mountains, supported by the biomass electrical generating plant operated by Novo Power in Snowflake.
The Forest Service then launched 4FRI, on the theory that selling the timber could pay for the thinning. So far, 4FRI has proven disappointing — with a succession of contractors thinning just 15,000 in almost eight years, thanks in large measure to the lack of a market for the biomass — which accounts for half of the material removed.
By contrast, a coalition of contractors in small-wood industry operations in the White Mountains has managed to thin an additional 50,000 acres or so in the same time.
Lerich said he’s frustrated at the lack of support from the state, the Forest Service and other agencies.
“Sometimes it’s hard to figure out what folks are doing on the federal level — just funding in general.”
The Trump administration proposed a nearly $1 billion cut in the Forest Service’s $5.1 billion budget.
The budget included a 16 percent cut in grants for state wildfire action plans as well as eliminating the $45 million Land and Water Conservation Fund.
U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen told a Senate committee that fire experts estimate the Forest Service will have to spend between $1.6 and $2.8 billion just fighting fires this year. However, the budget includes just $1.7 billion for fire operations.
Congress last year did set up a nearly $2 billion fire suppression fund the Forest Service to access in an emergency — just like FEMA has an account for dealing with damage from hurricanes and flooding. This could reduce the budget chaos of “fire borrowing,” which for years has forced the Forest Service to delay or cancel vital projects to move money over into the firefighting budget.
However, the budget cuts leave the Forest Service without the money to undertake the thinning and forest restoration projects that would make it possible to return fire to its natural role and cycle — ultimately reducing money spent fighting the fires.
Lerich said he’s mystified at the lack of priority for thinning projects that could avert much more expensive wildfires.
A subsidy of $1,000 per acre would cost about $2 billion to accelerate the thinning of the more than 2 million acres in the footprint of 4FRI. This includes a swath of land from the Grand Canyon to the New Mexico border, including all of the White Mountains and Rim Country. The project would protect hundreds of billions in property values and a population base of about 400,000.
“It should be the most important thing for folks in the Southwest to think about and be proactive for their source of water.”
But not even last year’s disasters in California, which consumed the town of Paradise, killed 88 people and caused more than $12 billion in damages has galvanized state or federal action
“The Wallow Fire cost $100 million to fight,” said Lerich. “And 90 percent of that money left the state of Arizona. That did not contribute to the economy of the local area at all. The Schultz Fire cost maybe $100 million to suppress and the flooding afterwards killed a little girl. Just the aftermath of that fire has cost $100 million. It caused the city of Flagstaff to finally get proactive about protecting its watershed.”
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