If you had $10 million to spend on protecting Flagstaff and its water supply from catastrophic post-wildfire flooding, how would you do it?
That was the question that faced city officials in the wake of the disastrous 2010 Schultz fire that wreaked flood-driven havoc on Timberline and Fernwood below.
Their answer, after getting city voters to approve a $10 million bond in 2012, was to start the easy thinning close to town themselves and turn over the more difficult parts to the Forest Service.
Now, five years later, all the “low-hanging fruit, as City Manager Josh Copley puts it, has been picked. And the two harder areas that pose the biggest risk – the Dry Lake Hills and Mormon Mountain – are well behind schedule and millions of dollars over budget. Meanwhile one of the driest winters so far in recent memory could foretell a dangerous fire season for Flagstaff.
If this was a new problem, we’d be more sympathetic to the brain trust behind the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project.
But unfortunately for Flagstaff taxpayers, it mirrors the pattern at the much larger Four Forests Restoration Initiative, also run by the Forest Service. That project is on its second set of contractors and has thinned only a tenth of the acreage due by now. Here are few reasons why:
Estimates on costs and market capacity that turn out to be wildly off the mark. Some FWPP costs will now be two to five times higher than guesstimates in 2012.
Inadequate vetting of winning timber sale bidders, who turn out to either lack experience or financial capacity, or both. The most recent FWPP contractor completed just 20 of 662 acres by the Dec. 31 deadline before the Forest Service canceled the contract.
Overly optimistic projections of future mill construction in a region where infrastructure for the wood products industry has been decimated.
Until this week, however, no one outside the FWPP knew anything about the budget shortfall and planned suspension of the entire Mormon Mountain project until voters or some other source come up with more funds – at least $4.5 million -- just to finish the Dry Lake Hills project. In fact, the city responded to the report in the Daily Sun of the timber sale default by assuring the public that forest treatments “are continuing as planned.” So much for transparency with the taxpayers’ money.
We have no quarrel with the initial move to ask Flagstaff voters to pay for thinning and prescribed burns outside the city limits, one of the first such arrangements in the country. The city’s vulnerable watershed covers some 15,000 acres, and not all is inside Flagstaff. And by putting money up front, the city could essentially jump their projects to the head of the line with the Forest Service rather than wait their turn on the forest restoration timeline.
But despite two-thirds voter approval, city officials felt they had to show immediate progress by spending some of the bond money on thinning and burning Observatory Mesa as well as some state Trust Land parcels south and east of Country Club. That’s allowed the city to claim 40 percent of the 11,000 total acres have been treated. But it’s also come at a cost of $3.2 million that the city doesn’t have available for the most flood-prone – and costly – forested tracts in the Dry Lake Hills and Mormon Mountain.
We suppose that hindsight is 20/20 and it’s a lot to expect city officials to precisely predict costs and market conditions five years out from the 2012 election. But when the pattern of unmet timelines, contract defaults and cost overruns is already evident in the Forest Service’s handling of 4FRI, it’s time for much closer city oversight of FWPP, starting with the hiring of an independent project manager. The voters have already shelled out $10 million for a project that is nowhere near to being finished. If officials expect them to reach into their pockets again, they need to show them they can take better care of their money.