Final changes to a plan for forest restoration activities across almost 600,000 acres in the Coconino and Kaibab national forests have made the document one that even several of its initial critics say they can support.

"Hopefully this is the resolution of the timber wars here," said Robin Silver, co-founder of the Center for Biological Diversity, which was one of the parties that filed objections to the Forest Service's plan late last year. 

But after months of negotiations with multiple objectors, Forest Service officials on Friday signed the first of at least two Environmental Impact Statements covering the 2.4 million-acre Four Forest Restoration Initiative. This initial EIS, five years in the making, gives the go-ahead for prescribed fire, mechanical thinning, stream restoration and other activities across the two northern Arizona forests.

The final negotiations between the Forest Service and objectors also produced several additions to the 4FRI plan that bolster Mexican spotted owl monitoring, increase protection of big trees and clarify how the project will interact with grazing on the forest.

The final hurdle in the process was a two-and-half-month objection resolution period during which Forest Service officials met with eight parties that filed objections to its draft final EIS, released in November. The goal was to resolve objections early in order to avoid litigation after the final 4FRI plan was approved.

The threat of lawsuits and administrative appeals has dogged forest thinning efforts in the past and was a perpetual concern during this environmental analysis process, said Diane Vosick, co-chair of the 4FRI stakeholder group.

“I think we all have worried throughout the process about litigation,” Vosick said. “It’s a factor always over the (National Environmental Policy Act) process that has plagued forest restoration since the '90s so there is a lot of evidence to suggest (the 4FRI plan) was very vulnerable.”

But that threat of the 4FRI plan ending up in court seems to have been reduced.

“I don't think you can say it went to zero but I think that the resolution process addressed many of the issues that were brought forward,” said Todd Schulke, co-founder of the Center for Biological Diversity, which has taken the Forest Service to court dozens of times in the past. “We don't intend to take any further action, we’re satisfied with the outcome of the resolution process.”

The Sierra Club, another objector, also said it would likely support the final plan. 

"If the final document is truly reflective of the dialogue that we've had (with the Forest Service), I do feel like many of our concerns will be met," said Alicyn Gitlin, the Sierra Club's Grand Canyon program coordinator. "I doubt we would pursue anything legally."

More owl monitoring

The final 4FRI EIS now calls for the creation of an independent group tasked with studying the effects of thinning and prescribed fire on Mexican spotted owl habitat in the 4FRI project area and across the region, said Annette Fredette, the Forest Service’s 4FRI team leader.

Another new component of the plan puts a check on mechanical thinning in Mexican spotted owl habitat areas, called protected activity centers. It directs the Forest Service to initially thin in only four protected activity centers. Then the agency must monitor those areas for more than two years before deciding how to treat the other 14 protected activity centers that fall within areas currently slated for mechanical thinning.

“Every time we've been thinning in (protected activity centers) we've been doing it blindly," said Schulke, who pressed for this new monitoring system. “Here's an opportunity to ask and answer those questions in a scientifically valid way."

Another component of the expanded Mexican spotted owl monitoring obligates the Forest Service to monitor up to six protected activity centers if they have been affected by mixed or high severity fire.

The changes to the plan also call for less intense thinning on an expanded number of acres that have a preponderance of large trees. Almost 8,000 acres will be added to a category of 38,000 acres of northern goshawk habitat that will be required to have denser canopy conditions than other parts of the forest. A multiparty monitoring group will also study exactly how to measure canopy cover — to do it by remote sensing or with on-the-ground measurements. The two methods have been known to produce different results, said Dick Fleishman, assistant team leader on the 4FRI project.

The end of a war

For some, the finalization of the 4FRI EIS marks a possible conclusion to a contentious history between the Forest Service, the logging industry and environmental groups that included a legal battle over Mexican spotted owl protections that ground logging to a halt in much of northern Arizona in the mid 1990s.

“This is a historic day for those of us that have been fighting this war for 30 years now. Everyone should take a breath and say 'Wow' and now we can move on," said Silver, of the Center for Biological Diversity, which was a key player in past Mexican spotted owl litigation. 

But Silver said the partnerships that support the Four Forest Restoration Initiative wouldn’t have happened without the gridlock over the region’s forests.

“Without the conflict there never would have been collaboration,” he said.

Ethan Aumack, conservation director with the Grand Canyon Trust, which has been involved with the 4FRI project for almost 20 years, echoed Silver’s thoughts.

“If you look at the way public lands management issues play out, often some of the strongest agreements are forced out of the most intense controversy,” Aumack said. “I think we were on the wrong course a few decades ago and it took a significant course redirection. That redirection was painful for many folks and it took a long time, but I think this EIS is the culmination of those efforts by many.”

Broad support

Beyond gaining the cautious support of many of its objectors, the 4FRI EIS also got approval from the project's entire 35-member stakeholder group.

“For the first time in the history of the Forest Service there is an Environmental Impact Statement that approves restoration and fuels reduction treatments that match the scale of the problem,” said Vosick of the 4FRI stakeholder group. The fact that all members of the group approved the final EIS “sends a powerful message about the level of support for restoration,” Vosick said.

With the first environmental analysis process wrapped up, the Forest Service is beginning work on the next EIS covering the central and some southeast parts of the 3.2 million-acre 4FRI area. Outgoing Kaibab National Forest Supervisor Mike Williams said he had high hopes that the next stage would move more quickly and efficiently than the first thanks to many lessons learned over the past five years.

“The beginning steps have been laid,” Williams said.

Emery Cowan can be reached at (928) 556-2250 or ecowan@azdailysun.com

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Emery Cowan writes about science, health and the environment for the Arizona Daily Sun, covering everything from forest restoration to endangered species recovery efforts.

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