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KNAU and Arizona News

Racing to restore northern Arizona's forests

Karen Kinne-Herman

By Daniel Kraker

Flagstaff, AZ –
Last week firefighter Robert Bolina took a break from mopping up the smoldering remains of the Schultz Fire. Gazing at a charred mountainside, he said this blaze is another example of good intentions gone awry.

"Because we've excluded fire from the landscape, you know Smokey the bear, fire is bad! Most of our ecosystems are overgrown, overstocked, where fire used to take care of that naturally now we need to manipulate the landscape, thin, open the landscape back up like it used to be."

That, he says, is the only thing that will stop catastrophic infernos like the Schultz Fire. And, in fact, in 2007 the Forest Service released a plan to try to do just that. But it was appealed by the Center for Biological Diversity. The Center's Taylor McKinnon explains why.

"The first plan would have logged many thousands of large trees, some in excess of 24 inches in diameter, and it would have left forest canopies, with as little as ten percent cover, and it was inconsistent with the Forest Service's own rules."

The Forest Service agreed to analyze the project more fully, to make some adjustments. Then it was objected to again. A year later, it was cleared for implementation. Then, it had to be prepared for a commercial timber sale, the first step in the thinning process. That took another year. By the time that was done, the economy had tanked. Mike Elson is the Ranger for the Peaks District on the Coconino National Forest.

"When it was a time to offer it for a sale, the timber contractors in area were all contacted, all indicated they would not bid, just because of the price of timber, so there was really no way for us to implement the project at that time "

The process seems excruciating, but Elson says every forest restoration project around Flagstaff has faced similar delays.

"And so it's kind of a cumulative effect. You know, it's a necessary process to make sure we have public input. But, we are where we are."

Which this year is a lot more forest scorched by wildfire than forest that's restored. Ethan Aumack, director of restoration programs for Grand Canyon Trust, says there are a lot of reasons why these projects can take so long to implement.

"The cost of thinning, which can exceed 1000 dollars per acre, the pace at which planning occurs, slow, scale at which planning occurs, relatively small compared to scale at which fires burn, disagreements about how forest restoration should take place."

And the lack of a vibrant timber industry to help offset the cost of thinning. Wally Covington, director of the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University, says it's hard to get all those pieces lined up at the same time.

"There can be 8 green lights, and one red light that stops the whole thing. That's what we've seen on the Schultz Fire."

But Covington is optimistic that could soon change because of something called the 4 Forests Restoration Initiative, or 4FRI. It's the most ambitious forest restoration effort ever undertaken. The goal is to thin trees and reintroduce fire to a 2.4 million acre swath of the Mogollon Rim. And to do it a lot quicker than it's ever been done before.

"There are people working together in that process who have been enemies in the forest wars in the southwest for a generation."

That's Taylor McKinnon again, with the Center for Biological Diversity. 4FRI has brought together environmentalists and timber companies, scientists and the forest service. And they're finding common ground, even on some of the most contentious issues. Some environmental groups have long insisted that no trees larger than 16 inches be cut in thinning projects. Now, McKinnon says, they're willing to compromise.

"In cirumcstances, where there are valid ecological reasons to remove larger, young trees, we're willing to go there."

The key to making this work, everyone agrees, is to achieve economies of scale. Instead of doing a 5 thousand acre project here, a 10 thousand acre project there, forest managers are planning three huge projects, each nearly a million acres. Henry Provincio, the 4FRI team leader for the Coconino National Forest, says that's the only way to encourage the timber industry to take part.

"It's just not viable for most industries to come in here and treat 30, 50 thousand acres a year, they just don't have that guarantee of supply."

But, he says

If we provide regular supply of material that industry can count on, we hope industry can make appropriate investment, hundreds of millions, to come into the region, hopefully they can make money, hopefully we can get our forests restored."

Forest managers want to have the entire planning process done for the first 750 thousand acres in a year and a half a fraction of the time it normally takes. They know they're in a race to get this work done before the next major wildfire occurs.

But, NAU's Wally Covington says even if everything works perfectly

"We're still likely to lose 30 to 40 percent of the ponderosa pine in AZ to fire, there's just such vast acreages."

Still, Covington says 10 years ago, he would have predicted we'd only be able to save five percent. So there's still time to leave a legacy of healthy forests for future generations.