Will an experimental plan be snuffed out?


As a relentless summer sun bakes the ponderosa pine forests surrounding Flagstaff, Ariz., an experimental logging project meant to restore forest health and reduce the risk of wildfire around the city has hit a snag.

On June 18, an administrative appeal filed with the Forest Service by a coalition of seven environmental groups halted a 10,000-acre logging project for at least six weeks. The agency will now re-evaluate the project and make changes if it finds any merits to the appeal. The proposed project, which has strong support from city officials, would cut small trees and set low-intensity fires in an effort to return forests to more open pre-Anglo settlement conditions (HCN, 3/1/99).

John Talberth, executive director of the Santa Fe-based Forest Guardians, the group leading the coalition of project opponents, calls the Forest Service's analysis of the plan "sloppy." He says no scientific evidence exists to back up the Forest Service's claim that commercial logging is needed to reduce the risk of fire, and he urges the agency to do a full-blown environmental impact statement on the project.

The plan was initiated in 1996, after a series of large-scale wildfires threatened the city. The Grand Canyon Trust and a group of forestry researchers from Northern Arizona University teamed up with the Coconino National Forest and Flagstaff city officials to form the Grand Canyon Forests Partnership. Its goal was to reduce the threat of catastrophic fire by using science-based restoration methods; the partnership planned to thin up to 100,000 acres of forest around Flagstaff over the next 10 years.

Talberth's arguments have some support among environmental groups involved in the project. "The (environmental assessment) did not give adequate evaluation of the cumulative impacts. It's fraught with problems," says Martos Hoffman, executive director of the Flagstaff-based Southwest Forest Alliance, a group that has participated in the partnership planning process.

The day after the appeal was filed, the partnership fired off a six-page press release slamming the Guardians for "boilerplate criticisms." In person, the partnership's supporters are no less critical of the appeal. Brad Ack, a founding member of the partnership and director of programs for the Grand Canyon Trust, criticizes Forest Guardians for not participating in the project's planning.

"We traveled to Santa Fe twice within the last six months to get their input. I think they're trying to push their zero-cut agenda," says Ack. He adds that the project was careful not to be "just another way to cut trees for profit."

Because the proposed project is an experiment in restoration forestry, says Ack, there is no way to do an environmental impact statement. "We don't know what the whole project is going to be. We just don't know what each step is going to be." He adds that, in this case, environmental assessments provide more accountability because an assessment is prepared for each new phase of the project.

If the agency rejects the appeal, the Guardians' coalition may file a lawsuit, and the project could be stalled again. While some say the debate will only improve the project, others aren't sure there's time for delay.

"The longer we wait, the closer we'll get to the fire," says John Gerritsma, the Forest Service's liaison to the partnership. "The one we don't know about."

* Tim Westby, HCN intern

You can contact ...

* John Gerritsma, Coconino National Forest, 520/527-3600;

* Brad Ack, Grand Canyon Forest Partnership, 520/774-7488;

* John Talberth, Forest Guardians, 505/988-9126.

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