Forest thinning set to occur in northern Arizona

 
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BY MAX COHN — 

A contract to thin 300,000 acres of forest as part of the Four Forest Restorative Initiative was recently awarded to Good Earth Power AZ LLC. The decision has been considered controversial by some environmental groups.

The Four Forest Restorative Initiative (4FRI) is a landscape-scale project designed to restore 2.4 million acres of forest along the Mogollon Rim. This project, which will focus on the Apache-Sitgreaves, Coconino, Kaibab and Tonto National Forests, will attempt to treat 50,000 acres each year over a 20-year span of time. This is the largest forest restoration project ever attempted in the United States.

“We are innovating here at NAU in ways that are unprecedented in the Forest Service,” said Diane Vosick, Director of Policy and Partnerships at the Ecological Restoration Institute, Northern Arizona University.

Through the use of prescribed fires and mechanical thinning, 4FRI will treat nearly 1 million acres, which in turn will have a beneficial impact over 2.4 million acres of forest. The ultimate goal is to minimize the risk of devastating and unnatural wildfire, improve wildlife habitat, and promote the health and resiliency of the forests.

“With 4FRI, we’re wanting to focus on the structure, the pattern and the composition of the forest,” said Henry Provencio, 4FRI team leader for the Forest Service.

“What we hope to accomplish is to increase the resilience and diversity of our forest. When I say resilience, that means they’re resilient to natural forms of disturbance such as fire, beetle outbreaks, flooding — all of those kinds of things.”

In the past, ponderosa pine forests in the Southwest had a much higher resilience to harmful wildfires than they have today. Due to the prevalence of grassy understories and a healthy distribution of thin trees, fires that burned 100 years ago would primarily blaze along the forest floor, consuming small trees but leaving the larger, thicker trees alone.

This kept the number of trees at a sustainable level. Beginning early in the 20th century, federal policy called for the immediate suppression of all wildfire. This disturbed the natural fire regimen and established an overabundance of small trees, which lead to a greater risk of catastrophic wildfire.

“Over the last 100 years we started accumulating a lot more small trees,” Vosick said. “And that’s the fuel that has created the big crown fire and the unnatural fires like the Schultz Fire that we see.”

The 2010 Schultz Fire, which occurred in Coconino National Forest just outside of Flagstaff, burned through 15,000 acres of forest and ultimately cost between $133 million and $147 million. The inferno, in combination with subsequent flooding, forced the evacuation of more than 700 homes and resulted in the death of a 12-year-old girl.

By reducing the number of trees to historical levels, the prevalence of massive wildfires such as the Schultz is expected to dramatically decrease.

“Under the 4FRI plan, there will be a focus on smaller trees and reducing numbers in order to create a more natural pattern on the landscape, to reduce the risk of fire, and to bring back the grassy understories and to restore forest health,” Vosick said.

This is the mission of new 4FRI contractor, Good Earth Power AZ LLC. The contract to treat 300,000 acres of forest over a 10-year period had once belonged to Montana-based company Pioneer Forest Products. When a lack of finances prevented Pioneer from moving forward, the Forest Service announced that Good Earth would take over instead.

Environmental groups criticized the decision, due to the Good Earth’s business plan involving the removal of large-diameter trees.

“It forces us back into the courtroom because that is our line in the sand,” said Robin Silver, co-founder of the Center for Biological Diversity, which opposes the plan. “If there’s not retention of the last of the largest trees, we’re back to court.”

Silver said a better choice would have been Arizona Forest Restoration Products (AZFRP), which agreed to refrain from the removal of large trees, defined as trees with an excess of 16 inches in diameter. The Forest Service rejected AZFRP for the reason that it did not want to accept a “diameter-cap,” noting that the removal of large trees will create necessary openings in the forest.

“When we’re talking about restoration and restoring that structure and pattern, some of those larger trees… need to be cut in order to restore that function to that system,” Provencio said.

The 4FRI plan will, however, avoid the destruction of old-growth trees.

In addition to 4FRI, another forest-thinning project is set to take place in Dry Lake Hills northeast of Flagstaff, and the Lake Mary watershed south of the city. The $10 million project, which will thin and burn nearly 11,000 acres of forest, is set to begin by year’s end.

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