Jay Smith likes to reminisce about hiking the Weatherford Trail in northern Arizona because he knows that, for much of the forest surrounding the trail, memories are all that’s left.
“It’s gone,” he said. “For the next 300 to 500 years, you’re not going to see the same type of forest there.”
Smith is the forest restoration director for Coconino County, which includes the city of Flagstaff and was hit by a particularly brutal start to this year’s fire season. The Tunnel Fire burned nearly 20,000 acres here in April and claimed 30 homes. The Pipeline and Haywire fires, which are still burning, charred another 32,000 acres in June, including much of the forest surrounding Smith’s beloved Weatherford Trail.
But as bad as this may seem, Smith knows that things could get much worse. The forest overall has six times more trees than it did historically, Smith said, which adds up to much more fuel for wildfires. After decades of putting out every fire that might have reduced the number of trees, some areas that would normally hold 60 to 80 trees per acre now hold as many as 2,000.
“We’re so far behind on getting these forests thinned that the actual fuel load that’s on the ground is more than it’s ever been,” Smith said. “Every day there’s more as pine needles drop and trees die.”
There’s agreement among all stakeholders in the area that the Coconino National Forest needs treatment—the foresters’ term for thinning the woods with chainsaws and setting prescribed burns to remove fallen timber and undergrowth from the forest floor. The U.S. Forest Service completed plans and secured funding for thinning projects over a decade ago. But many of the sites targeted by the plans have yet to see a single tree branch removed as the decline of the region’s logging industry has left a dearth of people and equipment to complete the work and make devastating fire seasons like this year’s less likely around Flagstaff.
The city is located in the heart of the largest contiguous ponderosa pine stand in the world. It’s an ecosystem that’s evolved to rely on low-severity ground fires as a maintenance tool to clean the underbrush from the forest floor and keep trees from growing so close together that fires can easily run through their crowns.
Now, the forest is denser than ever and extremely vulnerable to high-intensity fires that rip through the crowns of the forest’s trees rather than the low-intensity ground fires that were common in the past. The city of over 76,000 people considers wildfire to be the No. 1 threat to the community, according to a summary of the city’s wildfire codes.
‘A Massive, Massive Undertaking’
The city, county and state have all taken on projects to improve the health and lower the flammability of the forest in recent years, but the most ambitious was launched by the federal government 12 years ago.
The U.S. Forest Service’s Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) aims to restore 2.4 million acres of land from 2010 to 2030 in the Coconino, Kaibab, Tonto and Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests of northern Arizona. The project is the largest and longest-running restoration effort in Forest Service history, said Adam Livermore, the initiative’s public affairs officer. A large part of the restoration effort includes the thinning of trees and lighting of prescribed burns.
For thinning projects, loggers cut down some of the trees in a plot of forest or lop branches off trees they leave standing with the goal of opening natural gaps in the woods and making it more difficult for flames to climb into the tree canopy.
When the Four Forests Restoration Initiative was launched, its very existence was lauded as a success. A project of its scale had never been attempted before, so it was particularly complicated to put together.
“The planning incorporates science. It incorporates the community perspective. It brings together environmental groups with our industry groups…with this common goal of restoring our forests,” Melanie Colavito, a director at Northern Arizona University’s Ecological Restoration Institute, said. “It is a massive, massive undertaking.”
But, while diverse interests that often have trouble collaborating found common ground in the 4FRI proposal, it’s been hindered by the absence of another group—lumberjacks.
Much of the planning for the eastern section of 4FRI still awaits final approval, but the Forest Service completed planning for the western side—known as 4FRI Phase One—and has been issuing contracts for the treatment work since 2013.
All of the contracts for 4FRI Phase One are held by one company, NewLife Forest Products, to which the Forest Service has issued 16 different contracts for work within the Coconino National Forest. Those projects cover a combined 44,442 acres of land. But only 14 percent of these acres have been treated, as of the most recent 4FRI Phase 1 Update released in April.
Two of the forestry projects, the Orion and the 89 Mesa, burned in the Pipeline Fire. Part of the 89 Mesa project appears to have also burned in the Tunnel Fire, according to a comparison of wildfire maps and project boundaries.
Completed thinning projects could have reduced the intensity of the fires in these areas, potentially slowing their spread and reducing damage to the ecosystem, though it’s much too early to know what difference, if any, treatments would have made at either fire, Colavito said.
The company had not even started thinning the 89 Mesa project, despite the Forest Service issuing a Notice to Proceed in July 2015. The treatment of the Orion Project was listed as 36 percent complete just two months before it burned in the Pipeline Fire.
NewLife Forest Products did not respond to a request for comment.
An Economic Conundrum
Experts attribute the delayed work in large part to Flagstaff’s lack of a logging industry.
“[The industry] is gone now in Flagstaff,” Smith said “It used to be here. It’s no longer here. We’re reinventing an industry from scratch.”
Without established sawmills, equipment and logging crews in the area, completing these forest service contracts costs more than it’s worth, said Smith, who spent much of his career in the logging industry before entering forest management.
Flagstaff had a profitable logging industry through the 1980s and into the 1990s, but a push to protect Mexican spotted owl habitat changed the way loggers operated in Arizona, he said. Loggers could no longer cut the older, larger trees that were worth the most money, he said, so much of the logging industry jumped ship.
“The sawmill said, ‘OK, if we’re not going to be able to cut the big trees, then we’re going to move out,’ which they did,” Smith said.
The same economic problem plagues 4FRI today. Across the 2.4 million acres of land allotted for treatment, companies are responsible for removing everything except the most valuable trees. The big ponderosa pine trees that bring the biggest return to the timber industry are also precious to the forest, which they make more resistant to megafires when they’re left standing. Their thick bark insulates the biggest trees from the flames and high branches prevent low-intensity ground fires from climbing into the treetops and turning into high-intensity crown fires.
“All the stakeholders agree that we’re not cutting down our big, old, healthy trees, we’re cutting down our small trees, our Jackpine, our unhealthy trees, and there’s no market for that material,” Colavito said.
On top of that, the decline of the timber industry has left a lack of workers trained to harvest trees. A survey of logging contractors conducted by NAU’s Ecological Restoration Institute ranked the lack of skilled workers as the number one barrier to success in the industry.
“You just can’t create industry overnight,” Smith said. “If it was just about building a sawmill, we can do that pretty quickly. It’s about having the trucking capacity. It’s about having the logging, and all the industries that support those sawmill and logging industries.”
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If a logging industry can be established to help complete the project in a profitable manner, the work will get done, Colavito said.
Recently, the industry has shown signs of growth. NewLife Forest Products opened a new sawmill just 20 minutes outside of Flagstaff in April. The company believes the facility will provide 200 new jobs and allow it to thin 30,000 acres per year, according to a news release.
NAU is launching a new Forest Training Operations Program that aims to prepare workers to complete thinning projects, as well as other forest operations. The goal is to have the training program ready to accept students by spring 2023.
In addition to those initiatives, the Forest Service allocated another $54 million to 4FRI in November 2021. The funding was announced alongside a revised strategic plan that lists one of its goals as “resolving and improving conditions for industry success.”
“It’s gotten the attention of people in very high places because everyone is well aware that we have an issue here,” Livermore said. “The climate is hotter and drier, especially in the West, and this problem isn’t going away.”.
The Forest Service plans to thin nearly 37,000 acres of 4FRI land in fiscal year 2022 and has another 140,000 acres set to be treated by fuel reduction, prescribed burning, noxious weed removal, meadow restoration and watershed maintenance, according to Forest Service data.
For Smith, it’s a welcome change of pace. He knows delays in treating the forest comes with great risk, as he was reminded in 2018 by California’s deadliest wildfire.
“If you look at an aerial photograph of Paradise, California, where the Camp Fire was, it doesn’t look much different than Flagstaff,” he said. “To think that Flagstaff can’t have a fire go right through it is not being realistic. It can happen.”
While this risk is not eliminated by forest restoration projects, he says it’s a good start.
“‘Let’s just go out and get some work done,’” Smith said. “That’s kind of my mantra. I’m just ready to get some work done.”