Cedar Fire

The June 2016 Cedar Fire, as seen near the Blue Ridge Lookout Tower, burned 40,000 acres south of the White Mountains. County officials credit fire restrictions and forests closures this summer for preventing a megafire, given the record-dry conditions.

Fire season looms.

Crown fires threaten.

Every high country community quivers on the cusp.

So the U.S. Forest Service will on Thursday hold a meeting on its plan to use thinning projects and controlled burns across a million acres of Rim Country to dramatically reduce both tree densities and wildfire risk.

One little problem: The Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) the plan envisions has fallen years behind schedule and is struggling to make a dent on the hundreds of thousands of acres of projects already approved.

The Forest Service awarded the first 4FRI contract five years ago for an initial 300,000 acres out of a total of 2.6 million eventually targeted. The Forest Service shifted the contract from Pioneer Forest Products to Good Earth AZ after a year, with no projects completed. So far, Good Earth has completed thinning projects on about 8,500 acres out of the 60,000 called for in the original schedule. Good Earth has said it plans to thin 30,000 acres annually, but so far has had trouble lining up enough trucks and capacity at small-wood sawmills to come anywhere near that pace.

The Tuesday, April 18 meeting at Show Low City Hall from 4:30 to 7:30 p.m. targets an additional 1.2 million acres in desperate need of thinning. It takes place against the backdrop of that frustrating history, as an unprecedented agreement on the need to remove millions of small trees collides with economic realities.

The 4FRI Rim Country Project lays out the prescription for thinning 1.2 million acres stretching all along the Mogollon Rim, including much of the Payson, Young, Red Rock, Black Mesa and Lakeside ranger districts sprawling across three national forests. The Forest Service is well into preparing an environmental impact statement for this phase, which lays out in considerable detail the kind of forest the combination of thinning projects and controlled burns will leave in its wake.

The area features a complicated blend of habitats, including the dense ponderosa pine forests atop the Rim, the diverse riparian areas, oak woodlands, pinyon juniper forests and brushy chaparral.

The project aims to restore forest health and diversity. A century of fire suppression and grazing has resulted in a dramatic increase in tree densities — from perhaps 50 per acre to more like 800 per acre across vast swaths of ponderosa pine forests. The lack of the once-frequent, low-intensity fires has led to unhealthy tree thickets, a lack of diversity and a dramatically increased risk of wildfire.

The plan calls for retaining as many large, old-growth trees as possible. Some estimates suggest these centuries-old, fire-resistant trees now constitute 1 to 3 percent of the trees in the forest. For a century, loggers have focused on harvesting mostly those trees.

The Forest Service assessment suggests ponderosa pine dominates on more than 600,000 acres and juniper and pinyon on another 100,000 acres. A mix of oaks, riparian trees like cottonwoods and other pines dominates most of the rest. Critical habitat types like aspen groves, grasslands and riparian areas have shrunk to a fraction of their former extent.

Almost every type of forest suffers from densities far above normal. For instance, pre-settlement densities in all the major forest types ranged from 11-124. However, per-acre densities now average 684 in the ponderosa pine 1,139 in the pine/Gamble oak habitat and 1,294 in the pine/evergreen oak forests, according to the EIS for the project.

As a result, about 80 percent of the ponderosa pine forests in Rim Country are now at risk of crown fires — in which flames move from treetop to treetop through the interlocking branches. A pre-settlement forest fire might take out a cluster of trees, but would then drop to the ground to burn through grass to the nest cluster of trees. Those ground fires actually help the forest. But crown fires can kill every single tree and virtually sterilize the soil. Moreover, they can easily consume whole towns in the midst of the forest.

Past fires like the Rodeo-Chediski burned so fiercely they’ve left behind 70,000 acres of forest so badly scorched they need someone to plant more trees before they can make a comeback.

The overall goal of the project is to reduce the percentage of the forest subject to crown fires from 80 percent to 15 percent.

Perhaps most alarming, the changes in the forest have wreaked havoc on streamside riparian areas on which most wildlife in the forest depends for some critical phase of their life cycle. The 1.2 million acres in question includes 1,243 miles of streams. Only a quarter of those streams are “functioning properly” from a biological point of view. Nearly 20 percent are “non-functioning” — that’s nearly 200 miles of dead streams. The rest are “functioning at-risk.”

The original 4FRI plan offered the first glimmer of hope to deal with this dangerous accumulation of problems in a way that put loggers, local officials and environmentalists on the same side. This miracle of consensus arose largely from the agreement that any plan should concentrate on the millions of small trees but protect the remaining big trees.

However, figuring out how to reinvent the logging industry on the scale necessary to thin millions of acres without cost to the taxpayers has proved even more problematic.

Nonetheless, on Thursday the Forest Service will seek more input from the public on the kind of forest we want to see — even if the economics remain perplexing.

Peter Aleshire is editor of the Payson Roundup. Contact him at paleshire@payson.com

(8) comments

W9NA1P

"Painful riddle"...? [tongue_smile] Riddle me this... who stalls for time then says they don't have enough? [whistling]

Smokey02

The real riddle is this is such a joke.
After having burned a million acres of forests during the Wallow fire. It is redundant to think there are' too many trees " in Arizona .
This thinning and burning of trees one of the biggest contributors to global warming by killing the trees that give off oxygen and thinning that disturbs the water table keeping the ground moist .
Also what about a lol the wildlife that depend on these trees and vegetation to survive ? They also Keep erosion from happening .
These mature juniper trees that are being cleared along highway 60 East of showlow are far apart already and there never has been a fire there. They have stood there for years as a testament to nature takes care of herself.
Why not act on fires immediately if they do happen instead of cutting all the trees down in case it happens ?
The Forest Service has done a disservice to our forests by contributing to global warming and millions of tons of toxic carbons that not only kill wildlife but kill all of US with cancer, emphysema, mesothelioma and COPD.
Who wants to breath in all those toxins in smoke that diffuse all across the white mountain skyline ?
Trump is thinking of dismantling the Forest Dept .and honestly ..he should !

Tired

[thumbup]

bryan

One of the problems facing our country is, in the words of James Kunstler, "The lack of an Alt-Middle."
Through decades long fights between, first the, "Loggers" and now the, "Meat is murder" or "Not in my backyard" crowd we have had mismanagement from one extreme to the other. Sadly, we will have to keep this in mind going forward. Most of us are willing to find a place in the middle. Unfortunately, the extremes on this mountain promote their brand of, "Being right" through the courts, marketing and sometimes lies that makes the true middle seem a lost cause.
We don't need a forest with roads going everywhere. But we are not going to go back to a forest with absolutely no roads. Both of those ideas lead to extreme outcomes.
We could say the same about the wolf. Most don't care about the wolf because it doesn't effect them. But an out of control wolf population is a plus to some because that will put a career ending pressure on the rancher. So should we kill them all? Absolutely not.
Certainly in this great country of ours we can look at both extremes and say, "Get over it. We Alt-Middle folks are here to take control."
If we don't tell the special interest that, then I know two things that will happen. 1. The forest will burn. 2. Each side will blame the other.

Smokey02

[thumbdown][angry] THE Forest Dept should be renamed Logging company

Smokey02

What happened to my comment ?
2 others i,know posted theirs and not showing .

Smokey02

Over a million,acres of pristine forest have burned in Arizona between the Rodeo Chesepeake and the Wallow Fires. Now the Forest Service wants to Clear Cut more of our forests ? Why can't there be other means to. Control fires such as acting on them right away instead of the outdated "let it burn " policy ? Or closing vulnerable camping areas in high fire season.
Stiffer penalties for careless fire starters and arsonists .
The trees keep the ground table healthy when thinned ground is very dry making more vulnerable to fires .
Thinning or Clear cutting thousands of acres of our forests is only destroying our forests that have stood the test of time throughout history .


CamperGal

Camped for a few days off the Young Road, they are marking trees for removal. They are taking the tallest, straightest old growth trees!!!. How can this happen without USFS being aware?

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