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The bumpy forest road near Wing Mountain wound through acre upon acre of forest crowded with trees, a carefully chosen few marked with bright orange stripes.

This area of forest is one of thousands of ponderosa pine stands in northern Arizona set to be thinned as part of the Four Forest Restoration Initiative. The project hit a major milestone in April when the Forest Service completed the first environmental analysis, called the final Environmental Impact Statement, that calls for treatment on about 600,000 acres of forest.

While many involved in the project agreed that completing the first EIS was a major accomplishment, it’s also just the beginning of months and years of work for the Forest Service to prepare these areas for thinning and prescribed burning to begin.

Months of work

Before the Forest Service can open an area of forest to logging and thinning, it must go through a multi-step process that involves mapping the area, surveying it for various resources, monitoring for wildlife, marking the trees that should or shouldn’t be cut and cruising the forest to determine the value of the lumber.

The process requires half a year to a year to complete if more extensive wildlife surveys aren’t required, said Amber Dorsch, presale forester with the Forest Service. It also takes a multidisciplinary team effort to complete the work. On the Flagstaff Ranger District, for example, close to the entire staff are involved in the process in some way, district ranger Mike Elson said.

With the signing of the final EIS, the Forest Service has said the forest prep work will accelerate. Thanks in part to increased staffing, Elson said his district will ramp up its operations to prepare 15,000 acres of forest per year, up from an average of 5,000 acres per year. The Forest Service also is looking at awarding more of those acres to outside contractors rather than Good Earth Power AZ, the company awarded the lion's share of work on the 4FRI project. The fact that GEPAZ hasn’t ramped up its operations as quickly as expected — the company has thinned just 12 percent of the 28,420 acres in task orders already awarded it — has the Forest Service reevaluating a bit, Elson said.

"We're now probably moving to have a little bit more (acreage) than we had originally anticipated outside of the 4FRI contract for next few years," he said. 

Anatomy of forest prep

Preparing the 600,000 acres across the Kaibab and Coconino national forests that will see mechanical thinning, prescribed fire or both under the recently completed EIS begins with resource surveys to identify wildlife, biological, ecological, cultural and historic assets that need to be preserved.

Surveys for the threatened Mexican spotted owl and northern goshawk, a U.S. Forest Service-designated sensitive species, are the most involved, requiring extensive and sometimes repeated surveying and monitoring trips across the forest. Much of the treatment area, plus a half-mile-wide buffer will be surveyed for the birds.

Teams doing goshawk surveys travel across the forest, stopping at designated intervals to play recordings of the birds’ calls and then note if they hear a response. If they do, they start searching for the goshawk’s nest perched high in a ponderosa tree.

Once they find it, the Forest Service designates a 600-acre area around the nest’s location that triggers different requirements for thinning. These include maintaining tree canopy around the birds’ nest and creating open spaces in areas where they hunt.

Mexican spotted owl monitoring, which is done mostly in forested areas, can require up to four separate visits. The Forest Service must designate a minimum of 600 acres of habitat around an occupied nest as a “protected activity center,” where timing and other thinning restrictions come into play.

The results of the bird monitoring as well as other values surveys go into the silviculture plan that guides thinning work. Using the guidelines in the 4FRI Environmental Impact Statement document, as well as site visits, historical photos, journals and surveys, the agency's silviculturalist creates the thinning plan for a certain area.

“It’s almost like a sculptor, taking away what you don’t want,” Elson said.

Getting that planning process correct has taken a while, he said.

On some of the first tries it was difficult to get the number and density of trees correct, with forest managers initially cutting too many younger trees, not getting the openings big enough and not getting tree clumps close enough, Elson said.

“Traditionally (the Forest Service) took an agricultural approach because in the past the goal was to maximize production and you have more biomass production where you have evenly spaced trees, so that was how it was done in a lot of areas,” he said. “Now we've gotten better at replicating that sort of presettlement condition on the landscape through experience.”

Once the silviculture plan is finished, marking crews implement it on the ground. Armed with spray nozzles of special orange or blue tracer paint, the markers either spray the trees to be kept or those to be cut, depending on the area. The task allows for some creative license, so the markers use indicators like old stumps to figure out where trees were located historically and mark “save” trees based on fullness of their crowns, general health and characteristics that made them good wildlife habitat, said Mark Cagigas, lead timber marker with the Forest Service. Old growth trees always get saved, he said.

Generally, crews can get through 100 acres per day, Cagigas said.

The last step in the process is a cruising trip that will go through and determine the volume and the value of the timber within the parcel. The contract will then go up for bid, a process that has become much more competitive recently, Dorsch said. At the Coconino’s most recent timber sale, competition was so fierce that the final price per acre was three times higher than where it started, she said.

Eventually, the Forest Service would like to implement a practice whereby it provides thinning guidelines to a company and never has to go out and mark the trees. It’s a practice that has worked well in the Northwest but hasn’t happened much here, said Dick Fleishman, assistant team leader on the 4FRI project.

Prescribed burns also require certain preparation activities. The silviculture report is replaced by a burn plan that outlines the objectives and features of the burn based on the EIS, the prescription for the area to be burned, ignition techniques and staff needed to complete the burn.

People can tend to get frustrated if they don’t see thinning work happening immediately after the EIS document is signed, the Forest Service staff said.

But every step of the process is important to get right the first time, Dorsch said.

“Because this won’t get treatment for another 50 years,” she said, as she looked out on a jumble of trees, that stretched to the horizon.

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

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Environment, Health and Science Reporter

Emery Cowan writes about science, health and the environment for the Arizona Daily Sun, covering everything from forest restoration to endangered species recovery efforts.

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