After a troubled past, U.S. Forest Service officials are turning a new page for forest restoration in northern Arizona.
That was the claim made by U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore during a visit to Flagstaff during which he announced $54 million in money for forest restoration for this fiscal year.
Moore made the announcement alongside Sen. Kyrsten Sinema and Rep. Tom O’Halleran in Flagstaff on Tuesday night in the same building that had served as the city/county headquarters during the 2019 Museum Fire.
This time, however, the rooms were filled with Forest Service officials, congressional staff, local leaders and stakeholders who have been working toward successful forest restoration for two decades.
“This decision represents an important step for our larger national strategy to treat landscapes, and protect communities and watersheds, and create fire resilient forests at the right scale to address this current wildfire issue that we have here in this country, particularly in the West,” Moore told the gathering.
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O’Halleran said of the announcement, “We've seen what California has gone through; we don't want that for [any community in Arizona].”
The announcement comes just two months after the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI), which hopes to create healthier forests less prone to catastrophic wildfire across the Coconino, Kaibab, Tonto and Apache-Sitgreaves national forests, experienced a significant setback.
In September, after close to two years of work and several companies waiting on the results, the Forest Service canceled its Phase 2 contract for the project after officials said they discovered challenges that made the project unfeasible.
The decision was roundly criticized by elected officials including Sens. Sinema and Mark Kelly, with some worrying the setback spelled the end for one of the nation’s most ambitious forest restoration projects.
But while the future appears brighter given Moore’s announcement, it appears many of the same challenges that sunk the previous contract still exist.
Sinema told the Arizona Daily Sun she believes the announcement this week shows the efforts have come a long way since the contract was canceled.
“Chief Moore is here today because when I had a phone conference with him back in September, the day that they canceled the [contract], I said, ‘I want you to come to Arizona, and when you come you need to have a plan.’ And I have to say, they did arrive with a plan, so I'm grateful for that,” Sinema said.
“I was pleased to see that Chief Moore and the entire USDA and Forest Service Team took action in just 45 days to come up with a new plan,” she added.
Nonetheless, Sinema said, given the troubled past that 4FRI has had, her office will work to hold the Forest Service accountable to ensure that the agency follows through with what it has said it will do.
Moore said the investment of $54 million beginning in the coming months will allow them to immediately begin working with local partners to treat approximately 135,000 of the highest-priority acres of the forests.
That largely includes areas of the Coconino National Forest surrounding Flagstaff and near the C.C. Cragin (Blue Ridge) Reservoir, areas of the Kaibab National Forest on Bill Williams Mountain and areas of the Tonto National Forest in the vicinity of the Sierra Ancha mountains.
Forest Service officials have previously said they want to see those top-priority acres treated within the next five years, but this week that goal was extended to within the next decade.
Forest officials say 35,000 of those priority acres will be treated within fiscal year 2022, which began last month.
Those acres come as just a part of nearly 850,000 acres that the Forest Service hopes to see treated over the next 20 years, although the exact plan for all of those acres is still being worked on.
If the Forest Service and industry partners are able to see nearly that many acres treated, be it through mechanical thinning or the use of prescribed fire, and with the forest treatments that have already occurred, 4FRI will have restored close to 47% of the 2.4 million acres involved, officials say.
And the Forest Service officials said studies have shown that those efforts will go a long way to lowering the risk of catastrophic wildfires and to create a healthier ecosystem overall.
Still, many challenges remain ahead of achieving that restoration goal, along with many hundreds of millions of dollars in expenses, such as road maintenance.
Southwest forester Michiko Martin pointed out that of the $54 million, a full $10 million is going to repair forest roads beginning this fiscal year. Martin said another $30 million contract for roadwork is also on the way.
And Deputy Forest Chief Chris French said this announcement represents an extended commitment to 4FRI and forest restoration generally.
“We looked at the long-term costs of what it takes to implement the strategy that was put together [for] the next 10 years, and through the bills we've seen we can see the pathway to create that,” French said.
But there are $65 million in needed deferred maintenance on forest roads and bridges alone within the project area, plus as many as $10 million to $13 million in annual maintenance costs for roads through the life of the project.
It still appears to be somewhat undetermined exactly how some of those road expenses will be paid for, and other expenses associated with prescribed burning and noncommercial fuels treatments also exist.
The infrastructure bill passed last week could help, along with the Build Back Better bill if it is implemented, but even then the challenges could be significant given the financial burdens ahead.
Adrian Skabelund can be reached by phone at (928) 556-2261, by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @AdrianSkabelund.