Massive forest restoration efforts expected to start this year on the Coconino and Kaibab national forests are projected to save $100 million in thinning costs plus at least $11.6 million annually in the long run.
The latter is how much the local Forest Service now spends fighting wildfires each year, on average.
In addition, the decade-long thinning project is expected to support 1,674 jobs and $77.6 million in labor-related income annually.
The project all hinges on construction of a mill in Winslow to make flooring, trim and other wood products. It will be built by a Montana company, which was awarded a massive thinning contract last year to supply wood to its mill.
"We're still working on the funding to finalize this, but we hope to be able to purchase the property and start surveys and permits in stuff in the April-May timeframe, and break ground in the June timeframe," said Marlin Johnson, spokesman for Pioneer Forest Products.
The company plans to begin thinning areas already approved this year and selling wood to other businesses even before its own mill is up and running.
The Forest Service bases its estimate of $100 million in initial savings by not having the government pay to thin 920 square miles (587,923 acres) over a decade. Other costs to be absorbed instead by Pioneer Products include road removal, stream reconstruction and protective fending for aspen.
Areas in and near Flagstaff, Mountainaire, Munds Park, Kachina Village, Mormon Lake, Doney Park, Parks, Williams and Tusayan would see this thinning.
Here are other notable highlights from a draft environmental analysis of the biggest-ever thinning project proposed to date in the nation's forests, pertaining to the Kaibab and Coconino forests:
-- There aren't a lot of big, old trees, the Forest Service says, at least not ones bigger in diameter than 18 inches and older than 180 years.
-- Plans are to decommission 904 miles of roads on the two forests as part of this project.
-- The ability of remaining trees to survive in a warmer, drier climate is projected to improve with this logging, which will reduce competition for water. The Forest Service estimates about half the ponderosas in local forests are now more susceptible to death, wildfire or infestation by insects under climate change than in the past.
-- The odds of high-intensity (destructive) crown fires falls from a current 34 percent of these stands to about 10 percent of the landscape under these proposals. Southeastern parts of the forest near Munds Park are at highest wildfire risk today.
-- The agencies didn't stick with any diameter or size limit across the area.
-- Traffic would increase notably. Some 120,000 truck trips would be expected in these forests.
-- About 2 percent of any given recreation area would be off-limits to hikers, bikers, campers, hunters and other recreationists at a given time due to the project.
-- Local cattle and sheep grazing is a $2.2 million business on the forests, supporting about 130 jobs.
-- About 95 percent of aspen on low, dry areas in this region have died since 2000. This project proposes 82 miles of fencing to keep elk from eating remaining aspen (encroachment by other trees, disease, weather and insects are other killers).
-- The portion of Coconino and Kaibab forest lands rated as having a "high" likelihood of bark beetle infestation would go from 83 percent at present to 26 percent or 45 percent, depending on the thinning plan selected.
-- Smoke impacts are debatable. The agency estimates that smoke will impact nearby communities, but it also projects that if it took no action to thin unnaturally dense stands of trees in these forests, those stands would burn anyhow between now and 2050.
Cyndy Cole can be reached at email@example.com or at 913-8607.
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