Calling for comments on 4FRI environmental impact
Forest initiative to manage Coconino, Kaibab
FLAGSTAFF - With the intent of changing the way Arizona's forests are managed, the Four-Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) has entered a new phase.
Raging wildfires and infestations of bugs like bark beetles in recent years were signs of neglect and of well-intentioned management practices that turned out to be a detriment to forest health. 4FRI was created in 2011 to start measures that will help restore Coconino, Kaibab, Apache-Sitgreaves and Tonto national forests.
"4FRI is focusing on restoration," said Henry Provencio, the 4FRI team leader. "When we walk away in 20 to 30 years, the forests won't be restored, but they'll be much closer."
One of the steps along that path is a Draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) prepared by the Coconino and Kaibab forests. The environmental analysis includes proposals for restoration treatments for nearly 1 million acres. What it needs now is feedback from the public.
March 29, the Environmental Protection Agency published the "Notice of Availability" in the Federal Register for the DEIS. That opened a 60-day comment period that ends May 29.
The full DEIS is available online at www.fs.usda.gov/main/4fri/planning or a hard copy can be requested from the U.S. Forest Service by email at email@example.com or (928) 226-4684. Besides leaving or mailing comments, residents can attend their choice of six planned open houses in the coming weeks.
Provencio said 4FRI means to set up a trajectory for re-establishing how trees grow across the landscape. He noted that southwest forests are completely different from northwest forests and must be managed very differently.
In the targeted acres of the Coconino and Kaibab, Provencio said, "Generally, the health isn't very good... The forests are way overstocked with way too many trees. There is a competition between the trees for resources and decline in the understory."
The 4FRI Stakeholder Group consists of more than 30 organizations including conservationists, scientists, local governments and industry leaders. The previous round of public collaboration raised four major issues of concern. One of those is the retention of the large trees during the treatment process. Another was the cumulative effect of smoke and other emissions from controlled burns, specifically in the Verde Valley and Snowflake.
The Coconino and Kaibab developed alternatives for forest treatments that address such concerns. Alternative A is the default plan of doing nothing. Alternative B is the choice being proposed, thinning 388,000 acres of vegetation up to 16-inch diameter breast height (dbh) and using prescribed burns on 588,000 acres.
Alternative C is the preferred choice and also includes the large-tree retention strategy at 18 dbh or bigger. Provencio said there are not major differences between the proposed and the preferred alternatives. The only real changes are the numbers in acres for various treatments (thinning or burning).
Alternative D most directly addresses the issue of smoke in the environment by decreasing the number of acres burned by 30 percent compared to Alternative B. All of the alternatives, Provencio said, are a result of what the 4FRI team heard from the public.
Mary Lata, the 4FRI fire ecologist, said they already implement "a couple dozen" emission reduction techniques (ERTs) to control smoke as much as possible. That includes choosing the best time of year for wind and temperature. The practice of thinning before a controlled burn can also reduce smoke, she said, as can creating slash piles.
"On any burn there's always somebody tracking smoke," Lata said.
Forest workers will release a helium balloon at the burn site and watch its height and speed. Once it begins to leave eyesight, they will send one person out to follow it and predict where smoke from a fire is likely to land.
Lata said all forests submit forms to the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality stating their expectations for controlled burns during the year. ADEQ weighs each forest's needs against predicted weather conditions, temperatures and wind speeds and decides who can burn when.
Conditions can change in the middle of a burn, which is why burning is done in sections, Lata said. A controlled burn planned for 1,000 acres will be broken up into manageable areas so workers can more easily stop a fire when necessary.
"We do everything we can to reduce smoke," she said.
While this DEIS is focused on the Coconino and Kaibab, other parts of the 4FRI area have already gone through the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process. Once the DEIS comment period ends, the superintendents of Coconino and Kaibab forests will decide whether to move forward or analyze more alternatives. "It really depends on the comments we get," Provencio said.
By fall of this year or in 1914, 4FRI could have a direction in its treatment plan and be ready for the NEPA process, too.April 15, 6-9 p.m., Coconino Supervisor's Office, 1824 S. Thompson St., Flagstaff
April 16, 6-9 p.m., Williams Ranger District, 742 S. Clover Road, Williams
April 17, 6-9 p.m., Sedona Fire Department, 2860 Southwest Drive, Sedona
April 20, 10 a.m.-1 p.m., Tusayan Town Hall, 845 Mustang Drive, Tusayan
April 23, 5-8 p.m., Navajo Public Health District, 600 N. Ninth Place, Show Low
May 15, 1-4 p.m., Coconino Supervisor's Office, 1824 S. Thompson St., Flagstaff