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The Forest Service faces a test in Arizona

 

Arizona’s flammable ponderosa pine forests stretch from the South Rim of the Grand Canyon above the Mogollon Rim to the White Mountains in the east.  Most of that land -- glory country for recreationists, as well as the watershed for the Grand Canyon, the Phoenix area and many nearby towns -- lies within four national forests.

As most Westerners know by now, a century of fire suppression has caused a dangerous buildup of forest fuels. Over the past 10 years Arizona’s forests have been racked by drought.  Now, this vast, tinder-dry terrain is a prime candidate for devastatingly explosive fires.  And Arizona has already suffered monster fires: the Rodeo-Chediski in 2002, and the Wallow Fire just last year.

An extraordinary citizen effort, much admired in the state and nationally, has taken on the cause of reducing the heavy fuel buildup. This is collaboration at its best, with more than 30 organizations involved, including state and federal agencies, several counties, conservation groups and timber companies. They’ve come together to form what they call the “Four Forest Restoration Initiative,” graced with the snappy acronym of 4FRI.

While 4FRI is strong on the ecological sciences, it also addresses company profits and jobs.

But a red flag has gone up: On May 18, the Forest Service announced its choice of contractor for the 4FRI process -- Pioneer Associates, whose representative for the project just recently worked for the Forest Service. This was the largest stewardship contract awarded in the agency’s history, and yet the agency bypassed the contractor most deeply involved in 4FRI, the one whose business plan was closely tied to the project’s unique provisions.

Several 4FRI organizations have strongly criticized the choice of Pioneer Associates, citing the inadequacy of its business plan. The Eastern Arizona Counties Organization, for example, detailed “glaring deficiencies” in Pioneer’s bid and concluded that the award was “not based on either economic or ecological merit.”  What’s troubling to many observers is that the choice of contractor may indicate that traditional attitudes are tearing away at the agency’s support of 4FRI.

The Forest Service, with its long and rich history, has run into trouble with the public and Congress in modern times over two main issues: Its timber harvests for far too long were set way too high, and far too often the agency insisted on doing things its own way. This approach -- “we are the experts” -- persisted in spite of contrary public opinion.

Both problems have been alleviated over the past decade or so.  The timber cut is way down. The Forest Service now touts its commitment to collaboration with citizen groups, an approach that is widely agreed to be preferable to litigation and top-down, federal decision-making.

Doubters in Arizona, however, see the recent selection of Pioneer Associates as a bad sign. Tommie Cline Martin, a Gila County supervisor, predicts that, given the chosen contractor, the Forest Service will follow the same path as in the past, and that means “cutting big trees before getting to the small stuff, which is the threat to our remaining sickly forests.”

In the next few months, the Forest Service will face a major test on 4FRI, perhaps the agency’s most ambitious and carefully prepared collaboration effort. The regional office in Albuquerque will release -- probably in July or August -- the draft environmental impact statement for the collaborative effort. Does the choice of contractor suggest a lesser Forest Service commitment to 4FRI? Will the draft EIS weaken 4FRI’s environmental safeguards?

An immediate sign of trouble ahead is the news that Pioneer failed to include in its bid any funding for the regular monitoring of restoration efforts, an essential activity for good public land management.  Will the draft EIS insist upon monitoring that will meet the standard set by the collaborative effort?  Another hallmark of 4FRI’s approach is its commitment to thinning small-diameter trees because they, and not the large-growth trees, constitute the fire hazard. Will the draft EIS continue that emphasis?

There is a great deal of talk about a “new” Forest Service, one that is committed to using the best science and working on true collaboration. This summer, we will learn just how “new” the agency is willing to become.

Charles Wilkinson is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is the Distinguished Professor and Moses Lasky Professor of Law at the University of Colorado Law School and co-founder of the Center of the American West.