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There will be cable-logging in the Dry Lake Hills -- but none that is visible from the heart of Flagstaff.

And in exchange for thinning and prescribed burning within Mexican spotted owl habitat, researchers will monitor 12 owl sites for at least five years.

Those are some of the final changes to a plan for treating two key watersheds near Flagstaff to reduce the risk of wildfire and post-fire flooding.

On Thursday, the Forest Service released its Final Environmental Impact Statement and draft Record of Decision for the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project, which outlines how the agency plans to implement the 10,500-acre project in the Rio de Flag and Lake Mary watersheds.

Flagstaff voters approved a $10 million bond to support the project in November 2012.

The release of the draft Record of Decision, marks the beginning of an objection period, after which the Forest Service will meet and try to resolve all objections to the document before a final approval.

If all goes as planned, Forest Service officials said initial timber preparation work could begin this fall with the first timber harvesting starting up early next summer.

Cables and helicopters

Of the approximately 8,600 acres that will be treated within the FWPP project boundary, 414 acres in the Dry Lake Hills area will see cable logging, according to the ROD document. The areas slated for cable logging are generally too steep or too rocky for traditional ground-based logging equipment and are for the most part slopes that aren’t visible from the city of Flagstaff, such as areas along Schultz Pass Road, said Erin Phelps, the Forest Service’s Project Manager for FWPP.

Similar to narrow ski runs, 12-foot wide corridors will be cleared of trees, even old-growth ones, so that cables can drag the trees up a slope. Only the tops of the trees will drag on the ground, minimizing disturbance to the vegetation and the potential for erosion, said Mike Elson, Flagstaff District ranger on the Coconino National Forest.

Erosion within the corridors was a major concern of people commenting on the proposal, Phelps said. But the Forest Service’s inquiries into past cable logging sites in the White Mountains indicate there were no signs of erosion there, she said.

A 2011 study found that cable logging has less soil disturbance than traditional ground-based equipment in part because it doesn’t require as many roads across steep slopes, Elson said.

The Forest Service opted for helicopter logging to occur on slopes too steep for traditional logging equipment that were highly visible from town or where wildlife concerns necessitated treatment that had less of an impact, Elson said. Mexican spotted owl protected activity centers are one place, for example, where helicopter logging will be used in order to minimize the removal of big trees and snags, Elson said.

It is at least $1,116  more per acre to do helicopter logging than cable logging on the same types of slopes, Phelps said. Helicopter logging costs $1,560 per acre, while cable logging costs between $98 and $444 per acre.

“Because of the (voter-approved $10 million) bond, we had the flexibility to use more expensive options in sensitive areas,” Elson said.

Almost all of the area that will be thinned will also see prescribed fire — just 870 acres of the 8,669 acres to be treated are burn-only, Phelps said.

The FWPP plan includes a large-tree retention strategy that was modified from the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, and includes prioritization of old, pre-settlement trees and trees larger than 16 inches in diameter, with certain exceptions.

The environmental analysis document also makes permanent a ban on campfires in Dry Lake Hills that has been in effect since after the Schultz Fire.

To address concerns about impacts of the work on recreational trails, including the possibility of long-term closures, the Forest Service has created an interactive Google map to communicate closures and work, Phelps said. It can be seen on the FWPP website.

Owl monitoring

Monitoring of the federally listed Mexican spotted owl makes up a major part of the forest treatment process.

“The intent is to take advantage of this project to better understand what the impact of this treatment is to owls,” Elson said.

To that end, the FWPP plan allows for thinning and possibly burning in Mexican spotted owl habitat areas during breeding season, but requires multiple years of monitoring in exchange.

The Forest Service will monitor a total of 12 owl protected activity centers, half inside the treatment area and half outside of it, Phelps said. Those PACs will be monitored one year before treatment, during the two consecutive seasons of thinning work and one, three and five years afterward, she said.

It's a monitoring program that is generally similar to what’s required  under the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, said Shaula Hedwall, senior fish and wildlife biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

All of the Mexican spotted owl 600 plus-acre PACs will also be prescribed burned.

Meanwhile, the Ecological Restoration Institute, based at Northern Arizona University, will monitor owl habitat by measuring data about forest structure, vegetation and fuels in the treated and reference owl habitat areas before and after thinning.

Upon first glance at the Forest Service’s final plan, however, Jay Lininger of the Center for Biological Diversity, said that the agency’s owl monitoring doesn’t go far enough. There’s a need for a more comprehensive, broad-scale monitoring effort that looks at long-term population trends and habitat changes, he said.

“(The Forest Service’s plan) won't tell us much about the birds’ use of habitat in the long term,” Lininger said. “Just looking at a PAC and whether or not owls occupy them for a couple of years only tells you whether or not logging killed them.”

The Forest Service is doing several other types of wildlife monitoring as well that include tracking the impacts of the project on bird species in the forest, red squirrel and northern goshawks.

Looking ahead

The Forest Service is anticipating the first forest preparation work, which includes surveying and marking of trees, to begin this fall. The first work will begin in Dry Lake Hills, including areas around Schultz Pass Road and the base of Mount Elden.

Helicopter and cable logging won’t start until late 2017 or 2018, Phelps said.

Though treatment is still a year away, the speed of the Forest Service’s action on FWPP is commendable, said Mark Brehl, Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project operations specialist for the city of Flagstaff.

“This (EIS) moved at lightning speed considering the time these documents usually take,” Brehl said. “This is a document we can all stand behind.”

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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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