Forest-thinning plan would clear brush, cut state’s fire risk

Forest-thinning plan would clear brush, cut state’s fire risk

12 December 2008

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USA — The U.S. Forest Service could decide within the next 60 days whether to sign off on a landmark proposal that could allow as many as 1 million acres of ponderosa-pine forest in northern Arizona to be thinned over the next 20 years.

The plan aims to restore forest health while minimizing the risk of catastrophic blazes such as the Rodeo-Chediski Fire, which charred more than 468,000 acres and forced the evacuation of thousands of residents in June 2002.

Backers of the state-led initiative, including the timber industry and environmental groups, are calling on the federal government to nearly triple the amount of overgrown forest it thins each year.

Thinning is currently limited by the high costs involved, which run to over $10 million annually in Arizona.

The proposal aims to ease the Forest Service’s financial burden by substantially increasing the role of private industry in the thinning efforts. It recommends the agency develop long-range contracts that would allow timber companies to pay for additional costs in exchange for a steady supply of wood.

“We really feel like this is a unique and groundbreaking agreement that we’ve been able to pull together,” said Todd Schulke, senior policy analyst at the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity. “We need to get our forests back into a healthy balance.”

The agreement calls for thinning across much of the Mogollon Rim, in an area covering roughly 1,550 square miles from Williams on the west to Eagar on the east.

Once at odds over whether to cut big trees for timber or protect them for their value to the ecosystem, proponents on both sides of the debate now agree that they can meet their stated goal of restoring the natural, ecological balance of the forest by removing mostly small trees.

But despite a lengthy list of positives, Forest Service approval is far from a foregone conclusion. The federal agency says it likes the concept of the plan but lacks funding and faces regulatory hurdles.

Some industry groups estimate the work would cost $750 million over the 20-year period.

“What could we do with our existing funds? Our existing workforce? How can we be more efficient? What would it take to do large-scale planning? These are all the questions,” said Don Bright, assistant Forest Service director for forest-vegetation management. “We’re working on the figures and trying to come up with an answer.”

Finding a solution

This new plan has its roots in a broad-based, state-initiated effort to improve the overall health of Arizona’s forests with more money, manpower and interagency coordination.

The strategy, called Restoring Arizona’s Forests, was the result of two years of work by Gov. Janet Napolitano’s forest-health advisory groups.

The plan, released last summer, called on the federal government to allocate more money for fighting wilderness blazes and outlined key strategies for achieving forest health. Among its conclusions: Scrub brush and small-diameter trees pose the greatest threats to the state’s forests, including the Tonto, Coconino, Kaibab and Apache-Sitgreaves.

Such material provides a “ladder” for fire, allowing it to climb up and reach the larger trees, resulting in catastrophic blazes that burn for days or even weeks.

“The bulk of the problem we are facing is related to an unnatural density of smaller trees,” said Ethan Aumack, director of restoration programs at the non-profit Grand Canyon Trust in Flagstaff and chairman of the Governor’s Forest Health Council. “Fire needs to play a central role in the natural functioning of these ecosystems, but it can’t burn hundreds of thousands of acres at a shot without doing potentially irreversible damage.”

Paying for the plan

The Forest Service currently thins about 17,000 acres in northern Arizona each year, Schulke said.

The new proposal calls for that to increase by an additional 30,000 acres annually, with the work spread strategically around urban areas and communities.

But finding someone to pick up the tab is a real challenge. Approximately 50 percent of the Forest Service budget is spent on fighting fires, with little left over for prevention efforts.

Faye Krueger, deputy regional forester for the Southwestern region, says the agency currently gets about $25 million each year to cover all the Forest Service’s thinning and treatment efforts in both Arizona and New Mexico.

Roughly 45 to 50 percent of the money is allocated to the Rim area, leaving quite a shortfall. Aumack believes that the additional thinning on the Rim could cost upward of $300 million to $350 million in the first 10 years alone.

Krueger said the Forest Service will be considering the proposal and the agency’s options over the next two months.

A new approach

One possible solution involves the Forest Service structuring its contracts so that business and industry would help offset the expense associated with the work that takes place before thinning begins.

This includes environmental analysis, planning and follow-up treatments, all costly undertakings.

Pascal Berlioux, president and chief executive officer of Arizona Forest Restoration Products Inc., advocates such an approach. His firm would use the small trees to make construction material. Berlioux would like a long-term, large-scale wood contract for at least 300,000 acres over the next 10 years, with an option to renew.

Such a deal would guarantee him a steady supply of material for his business. Those involved in structuring the proposal agree that 900 million cubic feet of material needs to be pulled from the 1 million acres to restore natural balance to the forest.

In exchange for the material, Berlioux’s firm would pay all costs associated with wood removal, which he estimated would be $300 million over the life of the contract.

The proposal differs from traditional stewardship contracts awarded by the Forest Service in that work would cover more acres for a longer period. In addition, Berlioux said, his firm is proposing to forgo the traditional stipend paid by the Forest Service for thinning work in exchange for keeping all the wood it removes.

It would be ‘unprecedented’

“This type of agreement is unprecedented,” Berlioux said. “We’re essentially allowing the forest to pay for its own restoration. It’s fundamentally different than anything that has been done before.”

It remains to be seen whether the Forest Service agrees to such a proposal, which would have to go through a public bidding process.

The option would appear to minimize costs but still is likely to leave the agency on the hook for several million dollars annually for site analysis and preparation expenses. The Forest Service also has to overcome regulatory hurdles.

The biggest is the cancellation clause, which requires the Forest Service to set aside money to cover financial obligations if it has to cancel a contract.

For example, if the Forest Service agrees to a thinning contract and a fire destroys the material that a company was to receive, the agency would still need to pay for equipment costs and the wood it promised the business. Logistical challenges aside, the Forest Service’s Krueger said the idea of removing small-diameter trees has merit and could greatly improve the health of the state’s forests.

“It’s something that we would like to see implemented, and we believe it would be helpful,” she said. “It’s definitely something that could be used elsewhere, too.”

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