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4 Forests Initiative brings together historic enemies to prevent wildfires

By Claudine LoMonaco

Flagstaff, AZ – Walk through the forests of Northern Arizona, and signs of trouble are everywhere. Start with the ground below your feet.

Taylor McKinnon, with the Center for Biological Diversity, says "the floor of this forest is composed of several inches of pine needles that have accumulated over a century. You have to work your way down before you even get to the soil."

McKinnon grew up in these woods. Now, he's an environmentalist with the Center for Biological Diversity, best known around here for shutting down the logging industry.

Look up from the pine needles, and McKinnon points out the densely packed trees- ten times as many as there should be. Most have been stunted by lack of water and light.

He grabs one. "I can put my whole hand around this one," he says. "It's probably 2 inches in diameter."

A century of suppressing fires and overgrazing created this overgrown forest. Now, it's a tinderbox. If fire starts, the pine needles and smaller trees act as kindling, funneling flames up to the crowded treetops above. And then, says Pascal Berlioux-

"All of a sudden all hell breaks loose."

Berlioux stands beside McKinnon, pointing up.

"If you're on a good wind," he says, "that fire is then going to jump from canopy to canopy and destroy the entire place."

Which would pread catastrophic fires for miles. Berlioux is a French-born industrialist who launched his career in the timber industry. McKinnon and Berlioux make an unusual pair, to say the least.

But they're part of an unlikely team of former arch-enemies that have come together to save Arizona's ponderosa pine forest, before catastrophic fires burn it down.

Known as the Four Forests Restoration Initiative, the project would thin the forest and restore its natural ecosystem, including frequent, low intensity grass fires. It would also create hundreds of long-term jobs, and get business to pay for it all.

That's where Berlioux comes in.

Berlioux's plan is to cut down the overcrowded small trees and turn them into Oriented Strand Board, or OSB. It's like plywood made out of wood chips, and it's a lucrative business.

Which is a good thing. The project aims to restore 2.4 million acres on the Mogollon Rim. It's an enormous swath of land on four national forests stretching from Flagstaff to the New Mexico border, and it could cost up to a billion dollars.

"There is no way this money is coming from DC," says Berlioux. "There is no way increased fishing or hunting licenses can pay for it. We have to design an economic engine that can pay for restoration. And that's what we're doing."

Conservation groups will guide the thinning and restoration. And the US forest Service will oversee the work.

It's taken years to build up the sprawling coalition of environmentalists, industry groups, scientists, and government entities needed to push through such a massive project. It's a remarkable feat especially given the personal history of those involved. People like David Tenney.

"There was a time when I wouldn't have given you a nickel to sit in the same room with some of the guys from the Center for Biological Diversity," says Tenney, a Navajo Country Supervisor.

In the 1800's, Tenney's great, great grandfather brought the first sawmill to Arizona. More than a 100 years later, during the 1990s, the Center for Biological Diversity destroyed the family business with lawsuits over the Mexican Spotted Owl.

"And now," Tenney says, "I not only sit in the same room with them, I consider them friends."

Tenney's one of the projects most vocal supporters, and has traveled to Washington, DC along side environmentalists to lobby for it. It's something he could never have imagined ten years ago. But that was before the Rodeo Chediski fire in 2002. The fire consumed almost a half million acres of overgrown forest and burned more than 400 homes. Thousands of people, including Tenney, were evacuated.

He remembers that the local fire department labeled evacuated homes in three different ways. A green flag hung outside meant that house could be saved. A yellow flag meant firefighters could maybe save it. A red flag meant a house could not be saved if the fire made it that far.

And when Tenney was finally able to return home, a red flag was hanging from an oak tree in his front yard.

The fire convinced Tenney something needed to be done. In 2004, a pilot project began to thin and restore the forests in the White Mountains. It was successful, but small and still depended on taxpayer subsidies.

Then, in 2006, Tenney met Berlioux. Back in Europe, Berlioux had run a 200 million dollar OSB plant. He and his family were in the middle of moving to Flagstaff when Rodeo Chediski broke out. It got him thinking. Could an OSB plant save the forests that lured him here?

Tenney was impressed with Berlioux's plan. So was the Center for Biological Diversity's Taylor McKinnon.

"Pascal's been very transparent," he says. "He has opened his books. He showed us his business plan and nobody's ever done that before."

The project has meant major rethinking for everyone involved. Environmentalists put aside lawsuits and embraced big business as part of the solution. In turn, Berlioux scaled back the size and speed of operations.

And the US forest service is getting back to its roots in conservation. Henry Provencio, heads the project for the agency. He says that for decades, it treated the forests as a commodity, making logging and grazing top priorities. It's largely why the forests are in such bad shape today.

"We often pay for the sins of our past," he says. "We pay for that in terms of public trust."

But he says the goal now is to restore the forest's natural eco-system, and along with it, he hopes, trust in the Forest's Service's ability to manage it.

The forest service hopes to grant contracts by the end of summer, with thinning to begin soon after.

If you know what to look for, you can spot small patches of restored forest throughout N. Arizona. Sunlight pours through large clearings in the forest canopy.

Clumps of native grasses, some waist high, brush past your legs as you walk. Large trees dominate, their bases charred from grass fires that keep too many seedlings from taking root.

These conditions helped these forests thrive for thousands of years. and backers of the four forests initiative hope that in 20 more years, all of Northern Arizona's pine forests will look like this once again.