4FRI Rim Project area

This map shows the boundaries of the 4FRI Rim Country forest thniing project.

WHITE MOUNTAINS — What a mess. And what a challenge.

That’s what jumps out from the Forest Service’s newly released study of the environmental impacts of a proposal to thin and burn 1.4 million acres in Rim Country and the White Mountains.

Across that vast landscape, the trees are stunted, potential crown fires and mistletoe infestations threaten 75 percent of the forest, streams, springs and meadows have dried up, species face extinction, aspen are vanishing and forested towns face catastrophe, according to the just-released environmental impact statement on the Rim Country and White Mountains 4-Forests Restoration Initiative (4FRI).

The analysis focuses on the plan to log and thin 900,000 acres and reintroduce low-intensity, managed fire on about 1 million acres, with some of those categories overlapping. The Forest Service hopes to play God, restoring the wildly out-of-balance ecosystems of a once stately, fire-adapted forest. The release this month of the 700-page Draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) starts a 90-day comment period, with the hope the Forest Service can award thinning contracts in the spring.

Thinned forest

Widely spaced mature ponderosa pine forests resist fire better and conserve groundwater, according to studies.

It’s the second phase of the landscape-scale 4-Forests Restoration Initiative. The first portion completed a million-acre analysis five years ago — mostly focused on the forests around Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon.

The Rim Country project includes millions of acres along the Mogollon Rim and near the communities of Happy Jack, Payson, Young, Heber-Overgaard, Show Low and Pinetop-Lakeside. But the project has more than local significance.

Forest managers and communities across the West are keeping their eye on 4FRI because the approach represents the best chance of keeping forests from burning to the ground and destroying communities. The massive assessment streamlines the process without waiving or gutting environmental protections. As a result, it offers a model for saving sickly, overgrown, drought-plagued, fire-prone beetle-infested forests everywhere.

But 4FRI’s accomplishments to date are less inspiring.

The Forest Service has previously awarded contracts to thin 300,000 acres to a succession of contractors. Those logging companies come gusting in with big plans – like making jet fuel from wood chips. But their business models splintered on the roughly 30 tons of wood scrap, saplings and brush the plan requires them to remove on almost every acre. Loggers can make money on small trees – but not on the biomass. As a result, they’ve only thinned about 15,000 acres so far.

The Forest Service hopes a more flexible and realistic approach on the latest installment of 1.4 million acres will attract industry. The Forest Service has already convened a conference for logging companies interested in bidding on the 900,000 acres worth of thinning projects cleared for sale in the Rim Country EIS.

So the economics of thinning remain problematic.

However, simply completing a 1.4-million-acre environmental analysis represents a huge change for the Forest Service. The old system could require a year of study for a single thousand-acre timber sale. The new system can clear a million acres for bids all at once and guarantee a steady, 20-year wood supply for industry willing to invest in new mills and wood processing operations.

As the EIS shows: That had better work because the forest’s in rough shape after a century of fire suppression, grazing and big-tree logging that has converted a fire-adapted forest into a thicket of matchsticks.

Rodeo-Chediski devastation in Overgaard

The 2003 Rodeo-Chediski Fire devastated some home in Overgaard. 4FRI represents an effort to prevent fire and to restore a healthy forest through thinning and controlled fire.

Almost the entire forest is vulnerable to crown fires, with flames leaping from treetop to treetop as fast as a man can run. About 20 to 50 percent of the forest could generate an “active crown fire” — a continuous wall of flame so hot it generates its own weather. Such a fire swallowed up Paradise, California, last year, killing 85 people before they could flee.

The project aims to dramatically reduce the risk of crown fires by creating a forest dominated by widely spaced, old-growth trees.

Currently, the forest has about 1,000 trees per acre, compared to the target of 10 to 250. Worse yet, about 90 percent of the trees now are less than 12 inches in diameter – saplings that spread a ground fire into the lower branches of the big trees like a matchstick. Historically, the forest was dominated by giant trees that could easily survive frequent ground fires. Now, trees greater than 24 inches in diameter account for just three trees per acre – they should average about eight.

In addition to thinning those dangerous thickets, the project hopes to restore streams, springs, meadows and wildlife habitat.

Only about a quarter of the 900 miles of streams are healthy. Most have dried up, silted up or eroded. However, about 90 percent of the wildlife in the forest depends critically on the survival of those streams and springs.

So the project hopes to restore 13,000 acres of riparian areas, 184 springs, 36,000 acres of grassland, 6,400 acres of wet meadows and 777 miles of streams. Some of that will follow naturally from dramatically reducing tree densities. Some of it will require extra restoration projects.

4FRI represents not only the best hope to reduce crown fires and restore forest health, but a sweeping effort to reinvent the logging industry and bolster the economy of local communities. The environmental analysis lays the groundwork for a new kind of logging and a new relationship to fire. It also demonstrates the enormous challenges of playing God with an ecosystem.

Granted, it’s complicated and full of pitfalls – but the long-term survival of every community in Rim Country and the White Mountains depends on how it all works out.

This special series will dive into the findings of the EIS for Rim Country and the White Mountains when it comes to fire danger, watersheds, wildlife, recreation and economics.

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com

(9) comments

TucsonTom

This is truly a challenge. I doubt it will succeed and I don’t know of any reasonable alternative. I despair for my community of Pinetop-Lakeside and wonder if freedom and self-government has a chance.

skall

Earlier this month in California: “Forest Service Controlled Burn Grows Out Of Control Amid PG&E Shutdown”

https://sacramento.cbslocal.com/2019/10/10/usfs-controlled-burn-out-of-control-pge-shutdown/

Big Red

Since Mr. Alshire and the USFS are now self appointed Gods over our lives, I am sure they will also miraculously heal all the illnesses, pain and suffering they are causing people. Heart disease, heart attacks, asthma, arthritis, lung disease, pain/inflammation and early death are the effects of smoke these Gods never want to talk about. I imagine right about now the citizens of California wish they had invested in supertankers that can fly in extreme winds in order to put out wildfires (not small planes and helicopters). Instead they are sitting in the dark without any electricity. This should be a lesson for everyone. Buy the supertankers and quit trying to play God.

Tired

[thumbup]

pioneerfamily

Keeping the two extremes in mind: The environmental groups want to do nothing, let nature take it course. The logging industry would prefer clear cutting, most efficient. We only have one path left. Clear every acre of all trees except the 50 largest trees. All other trees cut down will be left where they fall. Environmentalists want the biomass to stay where it is. Loggers don't want the expense of hauling out all the debris. It will take 20 years for the small trees to decompose to sawdust. If there is a fire, the downed trees will burn on the ground leaving the large trees safe. Twenty years after the Rodeo fire, we are still at step one. If we follow this plan, twenty years from now we will have a healthy forest. (Personally, my money is on the forest service. They have been screwing up our forests for more than a century. I don't see them changing anytime soon)

2rusty

[thumbup]You're right on all counts, Pioneer. Breaks my heart.

Informed Consent

The FS conducted wholesale logging of the large diameter trees in the SW for over a century opening the canopy so that the saplings,that normally would have remained stunted from lack of sunlight, could grow into the thicket that we see today. The FS says that they plan to thin these thickets by offering generous logging contracts. There are no viable markets for these small diameter/low value trees because of our outdated log export laws on the books. In the later 1970's, Japan harvested prime timber from the Pacific NW and sank it in bogs to preserve it When she needed them, she would haul them into international waters to mill them up in order to circumvent the use of our lumber mills. As a result, congress passed a series of laws that resulted in the prohibition of the export of whole un-milled logs from west of the 100th meridian, encompassing the entire western US. Senators Sinema and McSally are sponsoring a change to these laws in favor of AZ in the 2019 Farm Bill without any support from the FS, the environmental groups or our local newspapers. Basic economics tells you that if you don't have a market for your product it will not move no matter how much spin you put on it. The question is, hy do we not see any articles on this crucial log jam of legislation since the FS and the environmental groups have been publicly aware of this issue for nearly 10 years.

Informed Consent

Not only has the FS not mentioned our log export laws, they left out the entire Apache County from their socioeconomic analysis in the DEIS, while inserting Yavapai County (an affluent Northern AZ county) in its place. Yavapai County is not even located within the 4FRI territory. Apache Count is the poorest county in AZ and the sixth poorest county in the US. The FS' whole strategy toward the amount of smoke pollution that their plan will generate is that the public must take responsibility for their own health by installing high tech HVAC systems in their home, running their AC, buying portable air purifiers, stocking up on oxygen tanks and taking a vacation to San Diego during smoke "episodes". Could that be why they left Apache County out of their analysis? Doesn't it look silly to expect the residents of the sixth poorest county in the US to engage in these self protection activities when they can't even afford to replace the compressor in their car's AC?

Informed Consent

Even more troubling is that in the section that addresses the issue of our legacy of atomic bomb testing in Nevada, the FS persists in quoting a study of the Cerro Grande fire in New Mexico. The Cerro Grande Fire was a prescribed fire that got out of control and nearly burned down the City of Los Alamos and the Los Alamos Nuclear Laboratories. The study that they quote was designed to determined whether the fire had reached the nuclear waste storage containers located outside the laboratories. It was not designed to determine the amount and kinds of radionuclides that are still sequestered in our northern Arizona forests from the atomic bomb testing in Nevada in the late 1950's and 1960's that fell on our residents and our forests. Apache, Coconino, Gila and Navajo counties are Radiation Exposure Compensation Act (RECA) counties because they received the lion's share of radioactive debris (fall-out) from these atomic bomb tests. Residence that lived or worked in these counties during certain periods are eligible to receive $50,000 from the US Department of Justice for designated cancers. When the forests of AZ burn either as a result of lightening or man caused, the same radioactive debris that fell on our residence in the 1950's and 1960's is resuspended into the air and falls on our residents once again and again and again. Most troubling is that these radionuclides have long half lives. In the case of plutonium 239, the half life is 24,000 years. Cesium 137 is 30 years and strontium 90 is 28 years. Lodged inside in the human body through breathing, swallowing our saliva, or eating and drinking, these particles continue to irradiated the surrounding tissue for the rest of the persons life. Returning to the FS's quote in the DEIS that there is one chance in a million that anyone would be harmed, the laboratory that conducted the scientific study to determine if the Cerro Grande Fire had reached the nuclear waste storage containers located outside the Los Alamos Nuclear Labs, issued a disclaimer of the accuracy of their results due to the small number of samples and limited duration of the testing window which results in inaccurate conclusions. Just a final note, when the forests around Chernobyl catch on fire, Europe tests their dairy and wild game. In the case of Chernobyl, they only had to worry about Cesium 137. The atomic bomb blasts were loaded with plutonium. The amounts and kinds for individual bombs is still classified. One can reasonably assume that they were loaded with plutonium since it is plutonium that makes the bombs more powerful. During this period of atomic bomb testing, the government public health specialists reassured the public that there was no danger from the fall out while secretly warning their family members in the path of the fall out to move. This history of deceit should worry the residents of Northern AZ when they hear the same rhetoric in 2019 from a forest management agency.

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