A first contract is headed out this winter to businesses vying to log small and medium-sized ponderosa pines across tens of thousands of acres in northern Arizona.

The plan is to thin and burn about 50,000 acres per year until about 2.4 million acres on the Coconino, Kaibab, Tonto and Apache-Sitgreaves national forests are more resistant to very large wildfires.

It's the biggest plan in the West to make a healthier forest.

But even if industry offers to buy this heretofore hard-to-sell timber, some of the big ideas for improving the forest won't have funding, such as frequent prescribed fires.

"There's a lot else out there that needs to be done that industry can't pay for," said Marcus Selig, who works on forest issues at the Grand Canyon Trust.

So some individuals are exploring the idea that the people receiving water from these forest lands might pay fees to improve their water source, just like people in Denver, Santa Fe, N.M., and New York.

And a couple of graduate students at Northern Arizona University are weighing what works elsewhere, and how it works, for land managers nationwide.

This comes at the same time some have raised questions about what would happen to Flagstaff's watershed in light of any large wildfire on the San Francisco Peaks and flooding in the area of the Schultz fire.

WHO'S WILLING TO PAY?

About 90 percent of the water in the country comes from forested areas, said NAU hydrologist Abe Springer.

People "are used to having their water provided for free from these watersheds," even though they pay for other less tangible items, like a pass to recreate in Sedona, Springer said.

So some at the university are testing what residents are willing to pay for, via a survey mailed out in Verde Valley.

It's not published yet, so Springer won't give many details about what Verde Valley households think, except to say that, "it looks like they are willing to pay" to improve the area where their water originates.

Wes Swaffar is a graduate student studying environmental science and policy, and looking at the obstacles and opportunities in generating what's sometimes called "payment for watershed services."

He's looking at how that works nationally, and finding that some communities figure they can pay in excess of a $1 billion for cleanup in their drinking water reservoirs after a fire, or far less to try to prevent one.

"The costs associated with cleaning up after those burns really greatly outweighed the cost of improving the forests," he said.

SEDIMENT IN RESERVOIR

Claire Harper, of the regional Forest Service, has seen the after-the-fact scenario in Denver, where two fires burned some of the five watersheds that supply the metropolitan area and suburbs.

One wildfire about two-thirds the size of Flagstaff's Schultz fire burned 15 years ago.

It was followed by 2 inches of rain, and that filled a city reservoir with sediment that had to be removed at a cost about $40 million.

"Denver is still dealing with the aftermath of that fire 15 years later," she said.

Then came the 2002 Hayman fire that burned 138,000 acres.

And next up was a bark beetle outbreak that killed trees across some 3.4 million acres.

A Denver water board passed higher rates to improve infrastructure and the area's five watersheds.

Customers didn't object to it, Harper said.

The average water customer pays an extra $4 per year, roughly, for these activities.

"They're not paying for the water, because they already own the water," Harper said. "They're paying to reduce the risk to their watershed."

$5 TO $7 A YEAR

Santa Fe's 2000 Cerro Grande Fire started as a controlled burn, became a wildfire, and burned about 48,000 acres and 235 homes.

The watershed for the city has about 1,000 trees per acre, but the norm had been closer to 20 or 25 ponderosa pines per acre before European settlement.

A congressional earmark thinned some of the stands, but that ended in 2007.

Now the city plans to pay the U.S. Forest Service and split the costs to thin 500 to 1,000 acres per year, and have prescribed burns that return to each area every 5 to 7 years.

It costs the average ratepayer roughly $7 per year.

These are some of the ideas being discussed here, said Selig, of the Grand Canyon Trust.

To make the forest here healthy requires aspen restoration, wildlife improvements, repairs to springs, and regular prescribed fires, Selig said.

But contracts for logging are unlikely to yield enough revenue to pay for those sorts of activities.

The Dry Lake Hills that partially burned in the Schultz fire would be good candidates for thinning, but they're too steep to take equipment up, so expensive thinning would need to be done by hand, he said.

"There's a concern, if that area does burn, what impact it would have on the Flagstaff watershed," Selig said.

Cyndy Cole can be reached at 913-8607 or at ccole@azdailysun.com.

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