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Piling logs

The claw of a loader moves ponderosa pine trees at a 1,600-acre tree thinning operation overseen by Good Earth Power AZ on the Kaibab National Forest in this file photo.

The largest project to restore the forest health in the history of the United States Forest Service has had difficulties reaching its goal of trees thinned per year, but its attempts have still made a sizable impact on the rural economies of northern Arizona, a new study has shown.

The Conservation Economics Institute authors Evan Hjerpe and Anne Mottek-Lucas studied the financial impact that the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, 4FRI, has had on Coconino, Navajo, Apache, Gila and Greenlee counties. The authors found that almost 1,000 full and part time jobs were generated last year and that the project's influence spread across 140 different industries creating close to $150 million in regional output. Additionally, $50 million was created as income for workers in the same year.

Dick Fleishman, 4FRI operations coordinator, thinks the study is a great indicator of the reality and potential of 4FRI and their attempts to thin large swaths of forests in northern Arizona.

"These studies validate the hard work that everyone has been putting into this monumental effort over the years," Fleishman wrote in an email. "Seeing that we’re on the right track only motivates us to continue working together to accelerate the pace and scale of restoration in northern Arizona."

4FRI has also done work to cut costs, like transitioning from using paint to mark trees for thinning, to using electronic systems that use digital mapping to designate which trees need thinning.

"We are working with our partners to look at ways to help make industry more successful and decrease production costs such as scaling of timber, waivers of log export branding requirements, appraisals of forest products, and trying to match our offerings with the products our mills are currently producing," Fleishman wrote. "Eastern Arizona Counties Organization and Coconino County have been instrumental in getting highway weight limits increased so that trucking costs are decreased as well."

Dense clusters of trees within the Coconino, Gila, Tonto and Kaibab National Forests are endangering communities, foresters say, by creating the optimum conditions for high-intensity wildfires. 4FRI was created with the purpose of thinning out trees and reducing risk of those fires.

To reduce the risk, the Forest Service-managed project has needed to revitalize the logging industry, which has had trouble securing enough thinning contractors to accomplish the project's goals. Since 2010, the project has thinned 200,000 acres.

"That said, even though the Forest Service is approaching our goal of offering 50,000 acres per year — we offered 45,000 in 2018 — industry has only been able to accomplish the work at a pace of 12,000 to 15,000 acres per year, so we’re still not at our overall 4FRI goal of treating 50,000 acres per year," Fleishman wrote.

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A problem for industry comes from the cost of processing the small Ponderosa Pine, branches and slash piles on the west side of the 4FRI footprint. Because there are not enough mills or processing plants on the west side of the work area to process small trees and slash, travel is expensive making operations less profitable.

The study's authors also acknowledged travel distance as a challenge for the 4FRI project's economic success.

"One clear implication is that there needs to be a significant utilizer of small trees, chips, slash and residue within a reasonable transportation distance on the west side of 4FRI," the study's authors wrote. "Logging operators and mills on the east side of the 4FRI footprint have consistently processed much more wood per acre within the region than their counterparts on the west side, leading to greater capture rates and less leakage of regional economic contributions."

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Currently 500,000 acres of land in the four forest's footprint has been signed off by the Forest Service for completion, and the available geographic area is expected to "double" next year in the next phase of the contracting process, which includes Rim Country, Fleishman wrote.

Fleishman said that if 4FRI were to accomplish its goals of 50,000 acres per year, many more jobs would be needed for people with many different skill-sets.

Those jobs include forest processing jobs like equipment and truck drivers, site managers; workers at mills, biomass and wood processing facilities; truck drivers to move products from facilities to market, management and marketing specialists; and jobs in support functions related to providing parts, supplies and fuel.

However, increasing the demand and lowering the cost of production while creating a more stable market for logging and slash is not simple, Fleishman wrote.

"There isn’t a single silver bullet," Fleishman wrote. "If it were a simple fix it would’ve been done by now. It’s going to take us all continuing to work together and approaching this from all angles."

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Scott Buffon can be reached at sbuffon@azdailysun.com, on Twitter @scottbuffon or by phone at (928) 556-2250.

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