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4FRI keeps moving forward despite contract being nixed

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Nearly a month after the U.S. Forest Service canceled its phase 2 contract for northern Arizona forest restoration, forest officials are developing an alternate strategy to reduce fuel loads across hundreds of thousands of acres of federal land.

During a joint meeting between the Forest Service and local logging companies in Heber last week, Forest officials said that despite the previous setback, they still intend to see over 880,000 acres of forest mechanically treated as part of the Four Forests Restoration Initiative over the next 20 years.

By the time it was canceled, the phase 2 contract had contained 520,000 acres for treatment, and forest officials said that hasn’t changed moving forward.

But forest officials now say they plan to divvy those and other acres up into smaller and more easily managed contracts that can be sold off year by year.

In that way, if a challenge is encountered on a specific project, while it may delay one contract, it will not delay the entire forest restoration initiative.

“When we canceled the RFP, we took a step back to look at the entire landscape as we [evaluated] our approach,” Southwest Region Deputy Forester Elaine Kohrman told the group of close to 100 in the auditorium of Heber’s Capp Middle School. “Were looking at what is the landscape approach at all scales and for all opportunities.”

The metaphor used throughout the meeting was baseball: if the previous strategy had been to hit a home run, this time around they are going for singles.

Although much is still to be determined, forest officials presented industry leaders and local officials with an outline for the next 20 years of mechanical thinning efforts.

Kohrman said they are hoping to make a final decision on how to move forward later this month, after a second meeting of local stakeholders, including environmental groups, provide feedback that is scheduled for early this week.

“As a board of forest supervisors and forest staff, we will be meeting on the 26th to make our decisions on the first steps of what we want to pursue. That's in our work with [Salt River Project and the Department of Forestry and Fire Management],” Kohrman said. “So for those of you who are wondering how long we're going to take, we're going to make some decisions quickly.”

The end goal appears to be achieving close to 30,000 acres of forest treated annually across the Apache-Sitgreaves, Tonto, Coconino and Kaibab national forests.

Currently, the eastern section of the initiative largely on the Apache-Sitgreaves has been contracting out close to 15,000 acres of forest annually for treatment, largely through traditional timber sales.

The plan appears to be to keep treating about that many acres in the east while working to achieve annual treatment of about 20,000 acres in the West.

After calls for more transparency regarding what stalled the last contract effort, forest service officials also pulled back the veil, going into detail on the challenges that were encountered by the phase 2 contract.

It appears that a number of those challenges, such as those associated with federal procurement laws and money for road and bridge maintenance, could take an act of Congress to help solve.

For example, Danny Montoya, Southwest Region engineering director, said they have $65 million in deferred maintenance for roads and bridges across the project area.

After that, they believe it will take between $6 to $10 million annually for continued road maniac for the project, Montoya said. But Montoya said the Southwest Region has nowhere close to that amount of money to get that work done.

“We would have to pull all of our road maintenance funding from all the other forests in [the southwest region] and it still wouldn’t cover what’s needed. That’s a dire situation that we're in,” Montoya said.

Kohrman said they have discussed a flat fee per ton hauled on companies operating as part of 4FRI to help raise money for roads, but given the expense, it likely too much to put on industry alone.

Acres to address

Within the over 880,000 acres outlined, Forest officials said they have identified 134,276 that are top priority for thinning and hope to move forward with those areas quickly.

Those acres are largely clustered around specific at risk communities or watersheds such as on the northern slopes of Bill Williams Mountain or areas that are part of the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project.

Top-priority acres should be treated within the next five years, officials said.

After that, another 412,500 will then be treated through traditional timber sales. Forest officials said those acres are largely ready to be sold off and they see no reason to hold them back simply to include them in a larger contract.

Finally, another 334,000 acres will be treated mechanically, although the exact mechanism for how those acres will be distributed and contracted out is still to be determined.

Kohrman said those acres may come as part of another RFP, albeit one significantly smaller than the original phase 2 proposal that was canceled. But the acres could be distributed through contracts managed by the State of Arizona or nonprofit partners as well.

Those proposed acres, and the treatment efforts that are currently underway, should put 4FRI at about 1.1 million acres of forest treated across northern Arizona, forest officials said.

That’s equates to about 47% of the landscape.

When factoring in future wildfires and prescribed burning efforts, forest officials say they should get close to a healthier forest with reduced fuel loads across most of the landscape.

Adrian Skabelund can be reached by phone at (928) 556-2261, by email at askabelund@azdailysun.com or on Twitter at @AdrianSkabelund. 

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