By Tammy Gray
Red tape that has the ability to undermine the Four Forests Restoration Initiative (4FRI) has captured the attention of U.S. Senators Jeff Flake and John McCain, both R-Ariz.
In a letter dated March 24, the senators implore the U.S. Forest Service to make the success of the initiative, along with the White Mountain Stewardship contract, “a national priority.”
The problem boils down to a projected gap in the number of forest acres available to timber industries that are currently thinning forests in Northern Arizona between the end of the White Mountain Stewardship contract and the beginning of the 4FRI project. In order for the Forest Service to make land available to industry for thinning, it must spend an estimated average of $127 per acre in environmental study and contract costs. The funding for completing such work will dwindle over the next few years, and Navajo County Government Relations Administrator Hunter Moore noted that action is needed immediately to prevent future acreage shortages due to the amount of time it takes to complete the environmental study process.
“The major point is that we need to put more capacity into the system now, so that we do not run short in the years to come. If we don’t infuse new resources immediately, the ANSF (Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests) will not be able to catch up due to the demands and time of the NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) process,” Moore noted. “For all intents and purposes, the industry that exists now will likely have a major role in the second phase of 4FRI. If that industry is allowed to starve and die after we have taken 10 years to grow it, we will regret not having it around when 4FRI needs to be completed.”
Flake and McCain note in their letter to the Forest Service that the White Mountain Stewardship contract, which has its roots in the aftermath of the Rodeo-Chedeski fire, is a model for the nation and it’s follow-up, the 4FRI, must be given every opportunity to be successful.
“As private industry continues to make a comeback, our fire-prone communities will become safer at a faster pace and lower cost than the federal government could accomplish on its own,” the senators wrote in their letter to U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. “…However, the pending exhaustion of acres pre-approved for thinning under the National Environmental Policy Act poses a significant threat to thinning activity across Arizona’s eastern forests. Without addressing this projected gap in available acres, the industry that has developed in that part of the state could face significant obstacles. Such a setback would not only have an outsized impact on local economies, it could call into question the long-term viability of the stewardship contracting model on a national level.”
Moore noted that some of the private industry partners are willing to cover the costs involved in releasing the acreage for treatment, but that is not a legally available option at this time. He notes that approximately $4 million per year is needed from the federal government to make enough acreage available for industry to stay afloat.
“Estimates indicate that for a $4 million investment annually, the federal government gets private investment activity that is several times beyond that,” he noted.
Flake and McCain asked Tidwell to “make use of all available tools to expedite, streamline and increase the pace and scale of forest restoration.” They also noted, “In this fiscal climate, prioritizing these programs will ensure that communities throughout the West are less vulnerable to fire, while reducing the skyrocketing cost to taxpayers associated with fire suppression and post-fire recovery. We are sure that you agree that we cannot afford to let federal inaction hinder the prospect for continued forest restoration driven by private investment.”
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By Tammy Gray