High Country News
SOURCE: High Country News, March 1, 1999 Vol. 31 No. 4
'It's really a sales program'
Henry Carey ---
The Forest Service is trying to get political support for a thinning program, but the fire problem is no more huge than it was 10 years ago, or 20 years ago. This notion of trying to 'fireproof' the forests (with thinning) --- intuitively, that makes a whole lot of sense, but when you think of what happens in dry areas of the Southwest, you realize that the extent to which you'd have to thin would essentially create a desert.
"The fear-of-fire pitch has enormous appeal, but it's really a sales program. It isn't based on fact."
Henty Carey is the executive directot of the Forest Trust, a nonprofit community forestry group based in Santa Fe, N.M.
'We need to get this stuff on the table'
Brett KenCairn ---
I think we're in danger if we let this become a technical process, and just have a different set of experts tell us how to do forestry better. It's really a social problem. The core of that social issue is the ways in which we've encouraged people to disregard social responsibility for the landscape they live in. They allow and abet mismanagement or malignant nonmanagement in ways that will ultimately hurt us all.
"It's an enormous dilemma --- when people think that wood comes from Home Depot, how is it that people have any sense of responsibility for the system? Most people in Flagstaff have no sense of connection to the forest, except recreation."
"Hopefully, this project will help to make the issues clearer --- what does it really cost to do scientifically based restoration? How many acres do we need to do it on to meet ecological goals, and how much is that going to cost? Zero-cut activists don't have a sense of how much it's going to cost. We need to get this stuff on the table, and insert experience into the public dialogue."
Brett KenCairn is the coordinator of the Grand Canyon Forests Partnership. Before joining the Grand Canyon Trust this fall, he ivas the executive director of the Rogue Institute for Ecology and Economy in Ashland, Ore., and a board member of the Applegate Partnership, a collaborative forest management group in southern Oregon.
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"It's a program everyone's jumping on because it suits the political needs of the time; it's the new silvicultural mythology."
"This is not a prescription to manage ponderosa pine throughout its range --- at all, ever, in any way," says Doc Smith, one of the university researchers, responding to these concerns during a Forest Partnership meeting in October. "This is a way to answer some questions about ponderosa pine. It isn't.for the world, and it isn't for ponderosa pine everywhere."
But other federal agencies in the region are showing interest in Covington's approach to restoration forestry. Just 80 miles from Flagstaff, the Park Service is beginning a controversial program to thin some ponderosa stands in Grand Canyon National Park.
The debate has caused the partnership to step back. After the Southwest Forest Alliance threatened to appeal the plan, the partnership agreed to use the 16-inch diameter cap within the 10,000 acres to be treated during the spring season. But Hoffman says the plan must be scaled down further if the partnership wants to avoid a legal battle.
Despite their concerns about the project and its implications, however, Hoffman and other critics are generally positive about the process. Even after a somewhat tense exchange at a three-hour partnership meeting, Hoffman says, "This hasn't become an adversarial relationship ... Wally and I have coffee, and we talk about it. Using science as a tool is very, very important to me. And maybe in two years I'll be
over there with Pete and Doc and Wally saying the same thing they are. I'm willing to be swayed."
It's this willingness to be swayed that defines the partnership. In fact, the flexibility of the members has kept the effort afloat, say many participants. "I've seen them all bend," says Norm Wallen, a Sierra Club member and former city councilman who has attended the partnership meetings. "The barriers are really breaking down among groups," says Covington. "When you get on the ground with people who have a diversity of experience and education and background and get into the crucible of the real world, everything is brought into much sharper focus."
This isn't just a scientific turf war. The restoration plan used by the partnership - whether it's Covington's approach, the Alliance's prescription, Edminster's model, or some combination - is supposed to pay its way. In the past, that problem was solved by cutting the large, valuable trees, but that's no longer an option. It's here, where research collides with financial reality, that the partnership must deal with its most difficult questions.
A Marshall Plan for the forests
"The public is not yet facing what it's going to cost to put these landscapes back together," says
Brett KenCairn, who recently joined the Grand Canyon Trust as the executive director of the Forest Partnership. Citing a federal General Accounting Office report released in September, he scribbles numbers on a piece of paper. "If it costs $320 an acre to do this work ... and we're talking about 8 million acres of forest in the Southwest then we're looking at more than $2 billion for just this region."
The project is currently funded by private foundation grants and individual partners' budgets, but members hope the work will eventually pay for itself through the sale of small timber for fiber, fuel and fenceposts. "Unless we get a Marshall Plan for the forests," says Ack, "we need a way to make (restoration) economically sustainable."
Even so, the partnership wants to build a barrier between the science and the economics of the project. "We tried to avoid having anyone who has a direct economic interest involved in the (planning) process," says Ack. "This isn't just about consensus. This is about doing the right thing for the ecosystem."
Since the nonprofit forest foundation, not the loggers, will be responsible for selling the truckloads of timber, Ack hopes to get rid of the "perverse incentives" for timber companies to cut more and larger trees.
But the group still has some perverse incentives. Because it believes that the sale of the trees can help finance the restoration project, the debate over the size of those trees is more than scientific, and the mixed motives make a lot of people uncomfortable. "As soon as you bring the timber people in, they want to take out the bigger stuff," says Norm Wallen. "We're fearful of a centralized, capital-intensive industry that would create a huge Trust demand for decades," says Hoffman.
Some outside observers are also worried, and not just about cutting large trees. "When people are trying to create markets, there's a tendency to say, 'We've got a lot of (trees), we've got to bring in new industry and new technology to handle it,'" says Ryan Temple, community forestry coordinator for the Forest Trust. "If you bring that industry in and treat the problem, perhaps you return the forest to the condition you wanted, but you still have the industry there, and then where do they look? Do they start lobbying the Forest Service for more timber sales? Do they go to private land? Anytime you attract one industry to an area, you have to remember that there's a finite supply."
"Boy, I can't wait until we have that problem," responds Ack. "There's so many acres of this ecosystem."
He does concede that there's a need for caution. "There's going to be a limit to the size of this new industry," he says. "We don't want another timber economy."
On the other hand, the amount of timber that will be cut is still vastly greater than the demand. Handling small-diameter timber on a large scale requires pricey new equipment, and it's a financial risk that companies may not be willing to take. If the risk-takers don't appear, the partnership won't have to worry about another timber economy --- but it will have to start lobbying in earnest for its own Marshall Plan.
Beyond the mating dance(end article)
On paper, the partnership has come a long way since the Hochderffer fire blazed through the Coconino National Forest in 1996, but it's just beginning to take trees out of the woods. For those who think the fire danger around Flagstaff is on the rise, it's been a long wait.
"It's been a two-year mating dance, and there's been some real value to that process," says Paul Surnmerfelt of the city's fire department. "Now, it's time to move."
"It's not just putting up projects, it's making them happen," adds Gerritsma.
Gerritsma and others say the drawn-out process has brought a diverse group of people together to solve a problem --- a public relations feat that the agency could not manage by itself "We're pretty good at our scientific skills, but not so good at our social skills," he says. "That's what these other players have brought to the partnership."
And the partnership has given participants a chance to express their concerns early on, says Covington. "What is proposed for restoration is a much more developed, more mature proposal than what would have come out of the (National Environmental Policy Act) process," he says.
But all management plans, collaborative or not, are vulnerable to lawsuits, and there's no guarantee that the partnership's plan will not be hauled into court. The recently passed Quincy Library Group plan --- designed to reduce fire danger on 2.5 million acres of Forest Service land in Northern California --- has become a bogeyman for national environmental groups (HCN, 11/9/98). As the Southwest Forest Alliance dusts off its legal tools, the partners may find that their common ground still has its limits.
But unlike the Quincy group, the Forest Service had a strong voice in the partnership from the beginning. Timber interests, on the other hand, have been almost silent --- a sign of the group's effort to isolate the science from the economics.
And the group approaches the project as an experiment, where the research questions are still up for debate. While this attitude has been a little hard for the researchers to get used to, it may be one reason for the partnership's apparent ability to bend, not break, during its ongoing controversies.
"It's easy to sit around as a scientist or restorationist and think you know it all," says Covington. "We've spent years discussing this stuff and sometimes it's a little frustrating. You think, 'We've already been through this.' But that's what this is all about."
The partnership will be in the spotlight this spring, when Flagstaff residents see the first large-scale results of the restoration project, and no one can predict the reaction. The plan still has many roadblocks to face, since even if the group car raise enough money to thin 10,000 acres each year, the future of a truly restoration-based timber industry in Flagstaff is extremely uncertain. It's a risky experiment, But the participants seem to think it's worth a try --- and no one is threatening to retreat to comfortable turf.
"I got into this business to get away from people. I just wanted to quietly go out there and measure trees," says Carl Edminster. "If people wanted to use the stuff, fine, but it wasn't my game. Now, I'm in the game of working with people. I miss the trees, but I'm excited about working with the people."
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