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.