Arizona conservation project aims to fight fire, save forests

Arizona conservation project aims to fight fire, save forests

21 November 2010

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USA —  Forest Road 267 slices through the ponderosa pines in Arizona’s White Mountains like a dividing line between “before” and “after” pictures.

On one side of the road, dense stands of trees crowd out the undergrowth, the sparse vegetation starved for water and sunlight, the cramped treetops lined up like an expressway for a catastrophic wildfire, a threat all too familiar to locals who lived through the Rodeo-Chediski Fire eight years ago.

On the other side, empty spaces stretch between pines, the ground stippled with bunches of new grass and fresh stumps where crews have finished work thinning the trees, producing a landscape closer to what nature once maintained. This forest could survive a wildfire and even thrive once the flames died.

The “after” picture has emerged five years into the White Mountain Stewardship Project, an attempt to restore ecological health to parts of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests by undoing decades of management decisions. Those decisions – suppressing fire, harvesting old-growth trees, allowing livestock to overgraze – produced overgrown forests at great risk of wildfires.

The goal of the public-private project is to thin and restore a natural fire cycle to as many as 150,000 acres of pines over 10 years, removing younger, small-diameter trees in a way that will reduce wildfire risk to communities and preserve the unique biological diversity in one corner of the world’s largest contiguous ponderosa pine forest.

What makes the project more remarkable are the players – an alliance of former adversaries – and their roles: Private businesses cut down trees and use the wood to make products, reducing costs to taxpayers. Conservation groups, whose lawsuits all but killed timber harvesting in Arizona, monitor the thinning for its effects on the forest. State and federal agencies oversee the work.

Since 2004, more than 46,000 acres have been thinned.

Now, many of the same players, who once clashed over the future of the forests, have united to try to create an even larger “after” picture with a healthy-forest project unprecedented in its scope.

A coalition of federal and state agencies, conservation groups and private businesses signed an agreement in April 2009 to thin and restore 1 million acres in four national forests in the state over 20 to 30 years, reshaping the landscape from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon all the way to Arizona’s border with New Mexico.

The Four Forests Restoration Initiative is based on many of the same principles as the White Mountain project but on what foresters call “landscape scale.” It will require help from cities, counties, the state and federal government and could cost as much as $1 billion, a price tag supporters hope private industry can cover.

Environmental groups and scientists have promoted forest restoration for years, but it took the devastation of the 2002 Rodeo-Chediski Fire to bring such a diverse array of interests to the table. People who spent their lives fighting one another came together with a shared vision for restoring Arizona’s forests, saving communities from wildfire and re-creating a new timber industry and the jobs that go with it.

Supporters acknowledge the challenges of trying to restore such a vast area and are keenly aware of the obstacles, which include attracting private-sector financing to cover most of the cost.

Time is also a critical factor, both in keeping the alliance together and in taking advantage of political support in Arizona and in Washington at a time when big-government projects are becoming endangered species. Although there are no deadlines to start work, backers have lined up an ambitious schedule, one that will outline the private-sector role in the coming weeks and start environmental studies early next year.

The project’s players believe their proposal can serve as a blueprint for other regions of the country and for other cooperative efforts that could draw new support for environmental causes. The initiative, they say, could be a game-changer for the nation’s forests.

“This turns everything on its head,” said Ethan Aumack, director of restoration projects for the Grand Canyon Trust, one of the conservation groups behind the Four Forests project. “We have aligned ecological need with economic need and community benefit, and now we have the opportunity to do what’s right.”
Turning point

Navajo County Supervisor David Tenney still wonders sometimes how he wound up working side by side with the same environmentalists who ruined much of his family timber business with an onslaught of lawsuits in the 1980s and 1990s.

Ten years ago, Tenney admits, he probably would not have supported the Four Forests Initiative with the same fervor he does now. The son and grandson of mill owners, he might have opposed it altogether. But a red flag changed his view of the forests.

In 2002, the Rodeo-Chediski Fire scorched the Mogollon Rim, incinerating forests that had grown dangerously dense and tangled after decades of suppressing even the smallest fires, disrupting natural cycles that kept trees healthy. Thousands of people were evacuated, and about 400 homes were destroyed. Tenney’s home near Heber was in the path of the flames.

“They used colored flags to mark all the homes,” Tenney said. “Green meant they could defend the home, yellow meant they will try, red meant they couldn’t defend it. We got home when the evacuation order was lifted and found a red ribbon in our oak tree. That drove it home.”

Tenney had seen his family’s businesses collapse in the 1990s after the Center for Biological Diversity and other environmental groups won a series of court decisions over the Mexican spotted owl. Hundreds of people lost their jobs across the Rim.

But as he watched the Rodeo-Chediski Fire devastate the forests, he realized that the forests needed help, that he had to do something – anything – to prevent another fire.

“There’s just no reason for that to ever happen,” he said. “We can live in and off the forest.”

The fire was a turning point for others, as well. Then-Gov. Janet Napolitano created the Forest Health Advisory Council, which found the state’s forests overgrown and unhealthy, stressed by drought and vulnerable to disease, insect infestations and increasingly destructive wildfires.

The forests were in this condition not because of neglect but because of management policies that once seemed correct, beginning with attempts to eradicate natural fire as people built high-country communities.

The council recommended landscape-level restoration and thinning, strategic use of fire and a plan to bring back sustainable forest industries that could help achieve restoration goals and still create jobs in the forest communities.

“There are jobs to be had just as there are ecosystems to be restored,” said Taylor McKinnon, public-lands program director for the Center for Biological Diversity. “That creates a pretty big tent. It’s a tremendous opportunity. But it’s risky for everyone, and it’s a test for everyone.”

Environmentalists embracing the industry, even one reduced to cleaning up scraps, represented a profound shift in policy, a decision to work with the other side.

“Rodeo-Chediski really reset our collective worldview about forest health and wildfire in this region,” said Aumack of the Grand Canyon Trust. “This sort of landscape-scale restoration showed us all the need for and an opportunity for an appropriately scaled industry.”

The proposal that emerged brought together a coalition that includes the state and federal agencies, five Arizona counties, universities, industry groups and interest groups as diverse as the Sierra Club and the Rocky Mountain Elk Foundation.

Some of the initiative’s strongest supporters are occasionally surprised to find themselves working side by side with each other.

“Dave Tenney’s dad owned one of the mills we shut down,” McKinnon said, a fact not lost on Tenney but one that he set aside in signing on with Four Forests.

“It is in my mind our Number 1 priority,” Tenney said. “Without the forests, what do we have in Arizona? Burn it all down, and you’ve got nothing.”
Bottom-line conservation

On the outskirts of Show Low, on a sprawling industrial lot, a company called Forest Energy Corp. has helped solve one of the obstacles in the path of forest-restoration work: Where do you get the money to restore a damaged forest?

The timber industry was long gone, and the small-diameter ponderosa pines that would be marked for removal offered mostly low-value wood that, in days past, would have been fed to a pulp mill.

Forest Energy takes the chipped trees and manufactures pellets for wood-burning stoves, primarily for the consumer market. The plant operates 24 hours a day, every day of the year, processing wood harvested from the White Mountain project.

“We get 30 truckloads a day into the plant,” said operations director Gary Moore as he watched a semitruck deposit the morning’s fourth load in a towering stack on the side of the lot. “We can’t keep up with the demand” as consumers look for cheaper fuel alternatives to oil or natural gas.

Forest Energy works with Eagar-based WB Contracting under a stewardship contract, an agreement with the Forest Service that spreads the work and the cost of thinning the woods. The Forest Service pays the contractors a fee to cut and chip the trees – in an average year, the payout would total about $2.5 million – and the contractors cover the rest of their costs and earn a small profit by selling the products on the open market.

Without the industry on board, the Forest Service could never afford to thin the forests. Even with the contracts, the government knows it needs to reduce the cost per acre, about $500 on average for the White Mountain project.

The work is deliberate. The Forest Service conducts environmental reviews on a section of forest targeted for thinning, evaluating density of the trees, the slope of terrain (steep hills are left intact to prevent erosion), wildlife habitat (a squirrel’s nest or a goshawk breeding area can dictate removal patterns) and fire risk.

The aim is to remove the small-diameter trees, typically those with trunks between 9 and 16 inches around, and leave the older, larger trees, whose age and size are critical to sustain a robust, healthy forest ecosystem. The approach is nearly the reverse of what the old timber industry did when it harvested old-growth, high-value trees.

In some areas, trees are marked individually to tell work crews whether to remove them. In others, the loggers are given discretion within guidelines. Once the site is marked, crews sweep in, cut down the trees, run them through a chipper and truck them to Forest Energy or other customers.

A review of the project’s first five years found measurable effects. The trees are healthier, the forest floors are alive with vegetation, and songbirds and other wildlife are returning. The project supports more than 300 jobs a year and has injected $13 million into the regional economy, according to the review, produced by the Nature Conservancy and the Forest Service.

Less measurable, supporters say, but just as critical is the way the coalition has stuck together.

“It’s working because people don’t have lines drawn in the sand,” said Sue Sitko, White Mountains program manager for the Nature Conservancy, one of the groups that produced the review. “It’s been more ‘we’ll make something happen’ than ‘let’s see if we can.’ A lot has to do with putting aside those lines and finding the common ground.”

In some areas, the thinning probably hasn’t been aggressive enough.

Ed Collins, Lakeside district ranger for the Apache-Sitgreaves forests, points to one stand of trees that was “treated” during an earlier pilot project in which trees were cut down or cleared with prescribed fires. The taller pines are spaced farther apart than in untreated areas, but the ground is a thicket of waist-high pine seedlings, all tightly packed.

The forest’s unpredictable response to restoration work fuels the project’s ticking clock, already set in motion by the uncertainty of politics and financing.

“Mother Nature is a prolific reproducer,” Collins said. “If we don’t move faster, she’s going to clear this with another wildfire, and that resets it all to square one. We really didn’t think big enough here.”
No time to waste

“Big” is a word frequently used to describe the Four Forests Restoration Initiative, which also has been called “White Mountains on steroids.” While the White Mountain project has thinned 46,000 acres in five years, the Four Forests project could treat up to 50,000 acres a year for the next 20 years or more.

The vast scale of the project is important on two counts, said Henry Provencio, the project’s team leader for the Forest Service. Forest health can be best achieved when the largest possible tracts are thinned and treated. And private industry, whose participation is so critical to the project’s success, needs the certainty of a long-term supply of trees.

Thinning and treating the forests could cost as much as $1,000 an acre, or about $1 billion for the entire project. There will never be enough money in the Forest Service budget, Provencio said, which is why the work can’t proceed without an industry commitment.

One company already has staked out its interest in the project. Arizona Forest Restoration Products wants to build a plant to manufacture oriented strand board, a pressed-wood product popular in construction. The plant would operate on wood from the restoration project.

“The trees we need to take off the landscape is wood that simply has no value economically for traditional sawmilling,” said Pascal Berlioux, the company’s president, who moved to Arizona in 2002 as the Rodeo-Chediski Fire burned. “We need to give the wood economic value so it could pay for restoration.”

The pressed wood is not the holy grail, Berlioux said, “just an economic engine,” a view also expressed by conservation groups that find themselves in the unfamiliar position of advocating for the wood-manufacturing industry.

“We see restoration as a corrective step,” said McKinnon of the Center for Biological Diversity. “The industry is an economic tool to get the job done. It is an interesting evolution for everyone.”

But to stoke the engine, to attract financing and investment and keep finished products flowing into the market, the plant needs a large, steady supply of trees, which is why Berlioux said the scale of the Four Forests project is so critical.

One issue unresolved so far is the length of the contract with wood-production businesses. Federal regulations generally cap contracts for private companies doing government work at 10 years; industry officials say banks want to see contracts extend as long as 20 years.

Project supporters believe the work can eventually support up to 600 jobs, cutting down trees, hauling the wood out of the forests and making wood products. The first contract descriptions are set to be distributed in late December and will offer the first concrete evidence of whether industry will invest in the project.

“The jobs side of this is huge,” said the Grand Canyon Trust’s Aumack. “Right now we have this confluence of economic need and the need for restoration. There is an urgency to get this started. We have a unique window of opportunity that we need to wedge open.”

The Forest Service awarded the project a $2 million landscape-restoration grant earlier this year, money that can help speed up environmental reviews of the Four Forests project’s first phase.

The 15,000-acre Schultz Fire that burned close to homes in Flagstaff this summer underscored the forests’ precarious condition.

“There’s nothing like big smoke to get people’s attention,” Provencio said. “We need to make this happen in the time frame when we can find strong support. Industry tells us they can’t languish out there and keep investors on hold indefinitely. And the forests aren’t getting any healthier.”

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