While it has been six years since voters approved a $10 million bond for forest thinning activities, there is still plenty of hard work ahead for the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project and its partners.
Because their newly awarded bids only cover close to half of the Phase Two acreage, the remaining acreage will be sent out again at an undecided date. Matt Millar, Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project operations specialist, said the information the project has gained in the returned bids will allow the project managers to re-examine their cost estimates for the rest of the project.
"There’s more work ahead, but we’re really excited to see these new contracts get awarded and have work started soon,” Millar said.
Over the six years since the $10 million bond was awarded by voters, the project has spent $3.7 million of their bond and promised $3.6 million for the new parts of Phase Two. In addition to the combined $7.3 million dollars of the bond that has been promised or used, the project has leveraged close to $7 million from other agencies.
For example, $1.8 million of the awarded Phase Two contracts were from the National Forest Service.
The money and work from the project is going toward creating a more healthy and fire-ready forest to protect the city and its watershed from the danger of high-severity fires.
Mexican Spotted Owl
The Mexican Spotted Owl habitat dots the Phase Two footprint, which makes forest thinning in the area complex, Millar said. Phase Two covers the Dry Lake Hills area on the San Francisco Peaks and involves both steep and rocky terrain. Thinning companies have been told to keep from disturbing the owl's habitat, an endangered species under the protection of the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.
Groups involved with the project, including the City of Flagstaff and the United States Forest Service, were able to figure out a solution with the Fish and Wildlife Service allowing the project two continuous seasons of thinning, even during the spotted owl's breeding season that is normally prohibited.
“They recognize that wildfire is one of the biggest threats to the Mexican Spotted Owl habitat, and getting in there to do some thinning is really important,” Millar said.
This solution means that the two currently awarded contracts cannot start until all of the contracts are bid upon and awarded, because the two-season window does not apply to each contract separately.
Millar explained that if a contract is not completed within the two-year window, the contractors will have to abide by the current rules that include not disturbing the owls during their mating season.
Senator Jon Kyl visited several areas associated with logging and forest thinning in northern Arizona on Friday, Oct. 26.
He underscored that the timber coming out of northern Arizona doesn’t have a lot of value in the private industry, which exists in small numbers in northern Arizona. The dearth of private industry makes the bidding process hard to predict.
“Everybody understands the wisdom of doing the work,” Kyl said. “But it costs a lot of money and takes a lot of time, so everybody has to work together to get it done.”
Terry Hatmaker’s section of the Mount Elden contract area was an example of how business interests can deviate from municipal. After only thinning 20 of 662 acres around Mount Elden, Hatmaker faltered on his contract by the completion date.
After the contract area was put out to bid again, Dakota Logging picked it up and has made progress on the area. According to the project's October status update, Dakota Logging has completed a total of 400 acres of the contracted 662 acres since the middle of this year.
The new Phase Two bids are the most complex bids awarded by the project to date. These new awards set the project at 1,001 acres awarded out of the 2,358 acres in the Phase Two footprint.
And while they will have to wait for the next set of bids to be awarded, Millar said that awarding these bids can help them predict some future costs.
“Now that we have some firm costs — costs that reflect market conditions — we’re looking at Mormon Mountain to see what the project costs would be out there,” Millar said. “That’s exciting; for the first time, we have bids from industry.”
The 2,500 acres that make up the Phase Three section of Mormon Mountain are the largest portion of the project. The remaining total that needs to be thinned is 4,292 acres, which includes the two pending Phase Two bids, the Mormon Lake work and other smaller contracts in the planning stages.
While the City of Flagstaff reported in February that the $10 million bond will not be enough to cover the entire project, Millar stated that they had not made any decisions about how they will use the different interested projects to complete the funding goal.
Currently, the bond has $2.7 million remaining to spend and allocate on the remaining acres.