4FRI close to clearing major environmental hurdle
4FRI

4FRI close to clearing major environmental hurdle

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After almost four years of work, the U.S. Forest Service has released its final plan for restoration work on almost 600,000 acres of northern Arizona forests.

It is believed to be the largest single restoration project in the nation.

The Forest Service’s plan states that each year 45,000 acres of forest within the project area will be mechanically treated each year while 40,000 to 60,000 acres will see prescribed fire each year. Over a period of 10 years, about 75 percent of the 600,000 acres will be mechanically thinned and treated with prescribed fire while the other 25 percent will see only prescribed fire.

The project aims for post-restoration forests to have a tree density of 12 to 125 trees per acre, compared with the current average density of 400 to 1,000 trees per acre across the 4FRI area.

Ecological benefits

The Forest Service’s chosen plan of action will improve 23 percent of at-risk and 42 percent of impaired watersheds, increasing water yield. It will reduce the bark beetle hazard rating from 84 percent to 22 percent and spur aspen regeneration. This alternative will also create the most forest-related jobs and produce the least smoke emissions over the project’s 10-year timeline.

“Part of the interesting nature of collaborative processes like this is there’s a long list of things people want and in the end, if the collaboration is successful, folks usually get what they need,” said Ethan Aumack, conservation director with the Grand Canyon Trust who has worked on the project since it began. “I think we’ve reached that threshold here.”

Saving the forest’s oldest trees

Preservation of the forests' massive, historic trees has been a major pillar of 4FRI that was long a sticking point between the project’s stakeholders. In its final draft, instead of a rule that generally prohibits logging trees over a certain diameter, which groups like the Center for Biological Diversity pushed for, the Forest Service decided on wording that prioritizes the retention of trees over 16 inches in diameter, but provides a more flexible framework for deciding how, when and why those trees should be cut,  Aumack said. Even the Center for Biological Diversity described the Forest Service’s strategy as encouraging and a step in the right direction.

“The staff on the Coconino and Kaibab (forests) deserve a lot of credit for hearing our comments and concerns, taking them seriously and doing their best to address them,” co-founder Todd Schulke said.

Schulke also emphasized that the Center still has issues with the Forest Service’s plans to monitor the effects of fire and thinning on the threatened Mexican spotted owl. Too few monitoring locations and a monitoring plan that lacks specificity make the plan inadequate, Schulke said.

In addition to an owl monitoring plan, the Forest Service’s environmental decision require more precise thinning and lower severity fire in active owl habitat in order to comply with the official recovery plan for the species. It would also prioritize the canopy cover and large trees over 550,000 acres of northern goshawk habitat. 

With such a complex process, the Forest Service will allocate $400,000 toward monitoring impacts on everything from sensitive plants to grazing sites, agency officials said.

Gearing up

Over its next fiscal year, which began in September, the Forest Service plans to issue 28,000 acres of task orders under its Phase 1 contract with Good Earth Power AZ and about 20,000 acres of task orders to other contractors. By 2016, the agency expects to have 51,100 acres harvested.

The project isn't meant to only benefit Good Earth Power AZ, the subsidiary of Oman-based Good Earth Power that was awarded the 300,000-acre 4FRI Phase 1 contract last year. With hundreds of thousands of acres approved for thinning, the Forest Service is telling local logging companies it will be putting more contracts up for bid, but some in the industry remain skeptical.

“All I have is hope that the Forest Service will open up more acres,” said James Perkins of Perkins Timber Harvesting. It wasn’t the intention of 4FRI to put other loggers out of business, but Perkins said that fear runs through his head.

“We're kind of on the outside looking in and we're wondering if we're going to be here in a year or six months,” he said. 

Emery Cowan can be reached at (928) 556-2250 or ecowan@azdailysun.com

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