The Four Forest Restoration Initiative has been spent years strengthening and supporting the public’s faith in their mission to cut down trees across northern Arizona, or what they call their “social license.”
But the United States Forest Service made a decision out at the West Escudilla Project to cut down over 1,300 trees that were more than 150 years old, fearing an infestation of an invasive dwarf mistletoe. In response to the action, the 4FRI stakeholders released a letter, calling the treatment “inconsistent” with their current practices.
“Members of the 4FRI [stakeholders group] have spent nearly two decades building the social license that made landscape-scale restoration a reality on Arizona national forests,” according to the stakeholder letter. “There is broad stakeholder consensus and science support for retraining old-growth trees, including wildlife habitat, increased genetic diversity, and potential increased fire and climate resiliency."
The West Escudilla Project falls over 68,000 acres, mainly located in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest on the east side of the state. The stakeholders group expects the Forest Service to revisit and modify their marks to address their concerns.
Steve Best, Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest supervisor, explained that they are allowed to cut older trees if the forest health is at stake. In this case, stakeholders alleged that the science used to determine the health of the trees was outdated.
“My intent is that it would be very, very rare that we cut a big old tree, and it seems like we cut more than we were planning on doing,” Best said.
Joe Trudeau, southwest advocate with Center for Biological Diversity, is a member of the stakeholder group and traveled to the West Escudilla Project to verify the claim of old-tree cutting. While Trudeau said the trees were over 150 years old, stakeholders in their letter described the trees as being between 200 and 300 years old.
“You have the whole stakeholder group, including groups that aren’t aligned with the Center for Biological Diversity, agreeing that the Forest Service stepped out of their social license or social contract,” Trudeau said. “Society does not accept the logging of old-growth trees in the name of restoration. We will not accept that.”
The stakeholders expect the Forest Service to revisit their planned treatments to modify the trees they had marked for cutting. Best explained that they have heard the stakeholders' complaint.
“We’re working on recalibrating and making sure that we’re careful about cutting an old tree or not,” Best said.
The parasitic plant is small, leafless and drains the water from their host trees, which can affect tree growth and mortality, according to Forest Service documents.
The same documents explain that dwarf mistletoe affects ponderosa pines, and other trees like Douglas firs, more severely than other trees.
Best explained that when the plant gets to levels where it is able to spread, any of the younger trees below it will likely be infected. However, the stakeholders alleged that Trudeau’s data only showed a small amount of trees had levels of infection that warranted removal.
“The post-harvesting monitoring data also showed that targets for basal area reduction could have been met without harvesting large/old trees,” stakeholders said.
Cutting in the West Escudilla Project
The allegations of tree cutting originated from a member of the public in a Facebook post, but Trudeau went out to north of Luna Lake, a few miles east of Alpine, to see if the allegations were true.
He utilized a map from the Forest Service to do an inventory within a 200-acre unit. Within that unit he definitively found that 1,300 old-growth trees were cut. The tree sale at large involves multiple units and anywhere from 3,000 to 4,000 old-growth trees could have been cut.
“I went over there and I was blown away with what I saw in terms of the widespread amount of large diameter and old trees that were being cut,” Trudeau said. “I knew they were old because I would count the rings on the stumps and verify that there were trees well older than 150 years being cut.”
The cutting of trees within West Escudilla caused some confusion at first as some viewed the project as distinct and separate from 4FRI.
The stakeholders clarified that where the trees were cut, the Little Creek Sale, was a part of 4FRI because they included the acreage in their accomplishments and was spearheaded by the stakeholders.