Thinning The Forest

A Hydro-Ax mechanical feller removes a tree Tuesday morning from a section of the forest near Elden Lookout Road, where mechanical thinning has begun as part of the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project.

Jake Bacon, Arizona Daily Sun

Five years seems like a long time to turn a vote at the polls for Flagstaff watershed protection into an on-the-ground forest restoration project.

But considering how long it has taken to get a different project, the Four Forests Restoration Initiative, underway, the Flagstaff project almost looks like a rush job.

The difference is that the FWPP is funded by government – that is, Flagstaff taxpayers, who approved a $10 million bond in November 2012 to prevent catastrophic wildfire and massive flooding in the hills around the city.

4FRI, on the other hand, is designed to be funded primarily by industry on Forest Service lands, and the first 300,000 acres were put out to bid for treatment. Numerous stakeholders worked hard to achieve a fragile consensus on the cutting plan itself. But the plan lacked oversight and accountability for the successful bidder, and five years and two contractors later, less than 10,000 acres have been thinned on the western Mogollon Rim. And as a second plan is prepared for an even larger area, some doubt that the private industry model can succeed, even at a landscape level.

So were Flagstaff officials prescient when they proposed what, at the time, was one of the first municipal partnerships with a national forest to have lands outside city boundaries thinned at city expense?

Hindsight is 20-20, but it sure looks that way to us. Armed with a $10 million budget, the Forest Service immediately went to work on an environmental study that mapped the most fireprone timber stands as well as nests of endangered Mexican spotted owls. Steep slopes most prone to erosion were pegged for less-harmful cable logging, and some stands of old-growth ponderosas were declared off limits. Using collaborative tactics learned from 4FRI, the draft EIS containing a thinning plan was ready in near-record time and drew no lawsuits that would cause delay.

So this week marks the start of the first major thinning in the Dry Lake Hills, and from now through December trails off Schultz Pass and Elden Lookout roads will be closed and logging trucks will rumble through town. Were that area to go up in flames, most of Coconino Estates and downtown Flagstaff would be flooded, and at a cost to rebuild far greater than the $10 million bond.

Next summer, the work shifts to Mormon Mountain above Lake Mary, which is Flagstaff’s primary drinking water reservoir. No matter what happens with 4FRI, the municipal project remains on the fast track to completion, and so far there is no talk of having to ante up more funds.

That’s not the case with 4FRI, where the Forest Service has had to put in an extra $10 million for mapping and site preparation ahead of bids – eventually the project will cover nearly 2 million acres if forest managers can work out the operational problems with the private sector. Part of it is rebuilding a forest products industry that can make a profit not only from the cutting and hauling but also the processing of woody biomass and small-diameter trees. Those aren’t a financial concern with the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project – and city taxpayers still look as if they are getting a better deal.

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