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Fri, Aug. 19

Plan paves way for more Arizona forest restoration projects

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. - The U.S. Forest Service has completed an environmental review that paves the way for large-scale thinning projects and prescribed burns along a prominent line of ponderosa pines and mixed conifer that divide Arizona's desert from the high country.

The agency released hundreds of pages of documents Thursday for the Rim Country Project that's part of a larger effort to reduce the risk of wildfire on 3,750 square miles (9,712 square kilometers) of national forest. Known as the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, it’s the largest of its kind.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said at-risk communities should see the pace of such projects increase over the coming years, partly because of money from the $1 trillion federal infrastructure bill and a commitment from the Biden administration to aggressively thin forests that bump up against urban areas.

“We’ve seen historic fires, in terms of size, magnitude and danger,” Vilsack told The Associated Press. “We’ve seen the loss of life, we’ve seen significant loss of property. The pictures are horrific and the damages are catastrophic.”

The Four Forest Restoration Initiative launched a decade ago and was a rare showing of consensus among longtime adversaries to reshape forests on a large scale. But it's far short of its goals after delays caused by bureaucracy, the inability of logging and other companies to see a profit and other issues.

A contract for about 470 square miles (1,217 square kilometers) awarded a decade ago is nearing its end.

Massive wildfires like the Rodeo-Chediski in 2002 that burned hundreds of buildings and evacuated entire towns in eastern Arizona pointed to the need.

“We called our answering machine every day to make sure our house was still there,” Show Low resident Connie Emmett said Thursday.

Her property is located at the boundary of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest that's within the footprint of the Four Forest plan. She said trees that have died as a result of climate change, beetles or other forces need to be cleared out.

“I would like to see an acceleration, but I know the hand of the government works very slow," she said. “It's going to take a while, and it's going to take funding.”

The final environmental impact statement released Thursday covers half of the area included in the Four Forest plan. It was released early to give the public extra time to look through it. Those who weighed in on the draft plan have 45 days, starting March 18, to file objections.

The project as a whole has struggled to keep pace. The Forest Service revamped its strategy last year after deciding not to award a contract for some of the work. It now plans to break up larger projects into smaller, more manageable ones.

The project got a boost last year with an announcement from Forest Service Chief Randy Moore that $54 million would go toward high-priority projects on 211 square miles (546 square kilometers) near Flagstaff, Williams, Payson and in a wilderness area east of Phoenix. The agency also pledged to support existing forest industries and address problems that created concern for potential bidders, such as poor forest roads.

Earlier this year, the Biden administration said it would significantly expand efforts to stave off catastrophic wildfires that have torched areas of the U.S. West through aggressive thinning projects in multiple states. The administration also boosted firefighters' pay.

Arizona Rep. Tom O'Halleran said the risk will lessen only with continued investment.

“This can't be a one-and-done process," O'Halleran told the AP. "This is something we're going to have to get used to as a country, that these resources are critical to our country, that it's critical to our economy."

Under the Four Forest plan, about half of the 3,750 square miles within the Kaibab, Coconino, Tonto and Apache-Sitgreaves national forests eventually will undergo some form of treatment.

Environmental reviews are among the first steps. The first signed off on in 2015 covered the southern part of the Kaibab and the northern Coconino national forests. The Rim Country Project covers 1,875 square miles (4,856 square kilometers) in the southern part of the Coconino, northern Tonto and the west side of the Apache-Sitgreaves forests — near the communities of Payson, Heber-Overgaard and Show Low.

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