Project plan

Plan paves way for other Arizona forest restoration projects

The U.S. Forest Service has completed an environmental review that paves the way for large-scale thinning projects and prescribed burns along a major line of Ponderosa Pine and mixed conifer trees that separate the Arizona desert from the high country.

The agency on Thursday released hundreds of pages of documents for the Country Rim Project it’s part of a larger effort to reduce wildfire risk across 3,750 square miles (9,712 square kilometers) of national forest. Known as the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, it is the largest of its kind.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said at-risk communities should see the pace of these projects increase over the next few years, in part because of money from the $1 trillion federal infrastructure bill and a commitment by the Biden administration to aggressively reduce forests that collide with urban areas.

“We’ve seen historic fires, in terms of size, scope and danger,” Vilsack told The Associated Press. “We have seen loss of life, we have seen significant loss of property. The images are horrifying and the damage is catastrophic.”

“The hand of the government works very slowly”

The Four Forest Restoration Initiative was launched a decade ago and was a rare show of consensus among long-time adversaries to reshape forests on a large scale. But it is far from achieving its goals after delays caused by bureaucracy, the inability of logging companies and other businesses to make a profit and other problems.

A contract of about 470 square miles (1,217 square kilometers) awarded ten years ago is coming to an end.

Massive wildfires like the Rodeo-Chediski in 2002 that burned hundreds of buildings and evacuated entire towns in eastern Arizona underscored the need.

“We called our answering machine every day to make sure our house was still there,” Show Low resident Connie Emmett said Thursday.

His property is located on the edge of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest which is within the footprint of the Four Forest plan. She said trees that have died due to climate change, beetles or other forces should be removed.

“I would like to see an acceleration, but I know the hand of government is working very slowly,” she said. “It’s going to take time, and it’s going to take funding.”

The final environmental impact statement released on Thursday covers half of the area included in the Four Forest plan. It was released early to give the public more time to peruse it. Those who weighed in on the draft plan have 45 days, starting March 18, file objections.

Moving forward

The project as a whole struggled to keep up. The Forest Service revised its strategy last year after deciding not to award contracts for certain works. He now plans to divide larger projects into smaller, more manageable ones.

The project received a boost last year with Forest Service Chief Randy Moore’s announcement that $54 million would go to high-priority projects on 211 square miles (546 square kilometers) near Flagstaff, Williams, Payson and in a wild area east of Phoenix. The agency is also committed to supporting existing logging industries and addressing issues that concern potential bidders, such as the poor state of logging roads.

Earlier this year, the Biden administration said it would dramatically expand its efforts to avert the catastrophic wildfires that have scorched parts of the western United States through aggressive thinning projects in several states. The administration has also increased the salaries of firefighters.

Arizona Rep. Tom O’Halleran said the risk would only diminish with continued investment.

“It can’t be a one-size-fits-all process,” O’Halleran told the AP. “It’s something that we are going to have to get used to as a country, that these resources are essential for our country, that they are essential for our economy.”

Under the Four Forest plan, about half of the 3,750 square miles of the Kaibab, Coconino, Tonto and Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests will eventually undergo some form of treatment.

Environmental assessments are part of the first steps. The first signed in 2015 covered the southern part of the Kaibab and northern Coconino National Forests. The Rim Country Project covers 1,875 square miles (4,856 square kilometers) in the southern part of Coconino, northern Tonto and the western side of the Apache-Sitgreaves forests – near the communities of Payson, Heber-Overgaard and Show Low.

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