A Huey helicopter operated by R & R Conner ferries bundles of felled trees from the slopes of Mount Elden to a logging deck on Mount Elden Lookout Road in this file photo taken on February 12.

The forests in the Dry Lake Hills area being thinned by helicopter logging will continue to remain closed past their expected opening date and extend into June, Coconino National Forest authorities report.

The closure boundaries include the Dry Lake Hills area for helicopter logging operations that are a part of the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project, which is working to protect the city from catastrophic wildfire. The forest closures began in late January, and have exceeded two closure deadlines, including the most recent one of May 31.

George Jozens, spokesperson for the national forest, said officials plan to “open as much as we can” in mid-June, while helicopter operations continue in the Dry Lake Hills. Jozens said the forest service plans to open the entire mountain by the end of June.

“It took longer than expected because of the weather and public incursions on closure area,” Jozens said.

Markit! Forestry Management is running the helicopter operations in the Dry Lake Hills area, which was bid by the watershed protection project for helicopter thinning because it is too steep and rocky for traditional hand thinning crews.

Patrick Gayner, a vice president at Markit! Forestry Management, said they were originally given two years to complete the project, but told the Forest Service it could be done sooner. 

However, the wind conditions have created the biggest problem for the company's plans since operations began. When winds reach above 15 knots, or 17 mph, operations have to shut down, Gayner said.

“In a normal schedule for forestry, I’ll build in contingencies of one day for every operational week for weather or maintenance repairs. We’ve exceeded that from a weather standpoint,” Gayner said.

Gayner said his crew of close to 20 people have had to temporarily shut down approximately 50 percent of their operations this winter due to the weather.

“Mostly wind shuts us down,” Gayner said. “If we get heavy cloud cover up there, we can’t see. If it’s raining, we shut down. We can deal with a light drizzle.”

Problems with equipment have also caused the company to temporarily shut down on multiple occasions, Gayner said. For example, the company has had to replace two helicopter engines. He said that a single engine can cost the company approximately $350,000.

Repairs have caused shutdowns for around five to six days, Gayner said.

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Despite of the difficulties of operating, Gayner said the majority of their target acres of forests have been thinned. He said around 450 acres of land has been thinned in the past 7 months, with around 100 left to be thinned.

"Weather permitting, the project should be complete by the end of June," Gayner said. "We're hoping we’ll do a bit better than that."

The money for the helicopter operation came from a voter-approved $10 million bond to thin the forests for watershed protection in 2012.

Markit! Forestry is one of the few helicopter logging companies operating in the country and based out of Colorado Springs. Those operations are just one part of the second phase of the Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project, focusing on the Dry Lake Hills area.

Smith Forestry Service Inc., from Oregon, was awarded the remaining 400 acres involving mechanical thinning in the area.

Around $7.1 million of the bond's $10 million has been either used or allocated for the entire Flagstaff Watershed Protection Project as of last year.

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Scott Buffon can be reached at sbuffon@azdailysun.com, on Twitter @scottbuffon or by phone at (928) 556-2250.


Senior Reporter - Cops, Environment

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