After a decade of tilting at windmills, the US Forest Service has come up with a new, more modest approach to protecting towns and watersheds on 2.4 million acres of forested Northern Arizona.
The new 4-Forests Restoration Initiative plan effectively abandons the 10-year-long effort to come up with a way loggers can save the forest at no cost to taxpayers by selling the useable timber and turning the millions of tons of biomass into, well, something.
The new approach will increase to $54 million the Forest Service budget for thinning projects in fiscal 2022, prioritize the projects most likely to save towns like Payson and Show Low from a megafire and scrounge around for partners to help bear the extra costs.
US Forest Service Chief Randy Moore last week announced the new plan, starting with a big increase in the Forest Service budget for thinning projects on 135,000 acres of existing high-priority projects over the next 10 years.
“The Forest Service is increasing the scale of our investments into the 4FRI project, and we’re getting started sooner than previously planned. This strategy will focus our forest maintenance work to reduce wildfire danger in the 4FRI project area where wildfire is most likely to place homes, communities and infrastructure at risk. By placing our treatments in the right places and at the right scale, we will reduce wildfire risk, protect communities, and restore forests.”
The new approach will focus on supporting the struggling remnants of the region’s timber industry – mostly in the White Mountains. The Forest Service has gone through a succession of outside contractors, trying to find someone who could single-handedly thin 50,000 or 80,000 acres per year. Those efforts floundered on both a lack of the necessary infrastructure and some way to make money on the biomass from debris, saplings and branches.
Now, the Forest Service will focus on high-priority “firescapes,” including the forests around Payson, Show Low, Pinetop-Lakeside, Flagstaff and the watershed of the C.C. Cragin Reservoir in effort to provide the most protection possible with an expanded, but still severely limited budget.
The plan also will also rely heavily on feeding viable timber projects quickly to the remaining loggers to sell materials to a handful of regional timber mills and the state’s only biomass burning power plant in Snowflake.
However, the 14-page description of the new approach acknowledges the Forest Service will need to find partners and a lot more taxpayer money to thin the more than 1 million acres needed to reduce wildfire risk, protect watersheds and protect forested communities. The report estimates that the Forest Service will have to log or treat only about half of the 2.5 million acres in the 4FRI project area, which stretches from the Grand Canyon to the border of new Mexico — including most of Rim Country and the White Mountains.
“We are committed to reducing the risk of destructive wildfire and protecting communities, and recognize the scale of the need for restoration,” said Chief Moore. “Industry is vital to our success in this commitment, and we are fully committed to working with partners to achieve our restoration needs at scale.”
This means the plan will also rely much more heavily on controlled burns and managed wildfires, a low-cost, higher-risk way to restore a sickly, overgrown, fire-prone forest.
The key elements of the plan include:
• Use federal funding and partnerships to thin the 135,000 acres of high-priority existing projects that include Bill Williams Mountain, Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project, the CC Cragin watershed project and a project in the Sierra Anchas.
• Contract with existing industry – mostly in the White Mountains – to thin 300,000 acres over the next 20 years.
• Treat 86,000 acres on the Tonto and Kaibab National Forests over the next 20 years where the timber has little commercial value – which will mostly involve using prescribed burns.
• Quickly assess another 350,000 acres on the Coconino and Kaibab forests to determine how to quickly reduce wildfire risks, with some combination of logging, controlled burns and mechanical thinning.
• Improve conditions for the timber industry to enable existing industry to first survive and then expand. That includes figuring out how to cope with an estimated $65 million in deferred maintenance of roads and bridges necessary to actually harvest the timber.
That adds up to a commitment to about 300,000 acres of logging projects and another 600,000 of non-commercial thinning projects and prescribed burns – spread out over the next 20 years – providing the Forest Service can find partners to cover maybe half the cost of the thinning project.
The original plan for 4FRI envisioned a single contractor harvesting 50,000 acres annually while reducing tree densities by 80%. This was supposed to cost taxpayers very little, on the assumption that the loggers could figure out how to make money on the 30 to 50 tons of low-value biomass on each acre.
The announcement dovetails with the Forest Service’s desperate scramble to cope with the plague of megafires throughout the west, which cost the Forest Service billions every year to battle and consume whole communities
Wildfire suppression costs have topped $2 billion annually on average for the past five years, according to the National Interagency Fire Center. But the cost of fighting the fires represents only a fraction of the full cost of the explosion of wildfires across the west, driven by both the drought and by a century of mismanagement that resulted in dramatic increases in tree densities across millions of acres.
For instance, the US Bureau of Reclamation studied six major wildfires in an effort to calculate both the direct firefighting costs and the additional costs of things like rehabilitation, property damage, watershed damage and infrastructure losses. The study included the Rodeo Chedeski Fire in 2002, which cost $46 million to fight. But that accounted for just 15% of the $308 million in total estimated costs.
The situation’s gotten much worse since then, with an explosion of homebuilding in forested areas and the exponential increase in the size and intensity of wildfires.
The 8,500 wildfires that scorched California in 2018 inflicted $103 billion in direct and indirect damages, according to a study by an array of researchers published in the journal Nature Sustainability. Direct capital and health costs totaled $60 billion, with the resulting economic disruption costing another $43 billion in California and $46 billion nationally.
Arizona has survived two dangerous fire seasons. In 2020, 2,250 wildfires burned 978,519 acres of state, federal, and tribal land in Arizona. In 2021, 1,683 fires burned 532,142 acres. The National Weather Servicing is forecasting another dry, La Nina winter in Arizona – which could lead to another terrible fire season in the spring.