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White Mountain Stewardship Project

By Liz Wise, Board Member, White Mountain Conservation League                    

In the aftermath of the Wallow fire there has been a lot of finger pointing and haste to assign blame.  But something important has been missed in the rhetoric – a cooperative effort among many individuals, agencies, and groups in the White Mountains to begin to reduce fire risks to communities, the forest, and wildlife in the area.
 
In the mid-1990s a small group of local individuals, concerned about the declining and increasingly dangerous conditions in the forest, got together to seek possible solutions.  Small trees in both the previously logged and unlogged portions of the forest were choking the entire Apache-Sitgreaves, creating a dangerous fire hazard by providing the ladder fuels that could and, years later did, reach the ponderosa and mixed conifer canopy.  Once burning in the treetops, high intensity fire can quickly spread as directed by the winds. In the past 10 years the White Mountains have twice seen the results of these mega-fires.  This small group originally consisted of the Forest Service, county and local officials, AZ Game & Fish, University of Arizona Extension, and the White Mountain Conservation League, a local environmental group with over 250 members. The driving force that brought together these disparate, even opposing, individuals and groups was a strong common desire to see the forest returned to a healthy state in which it could sustain itself, as it had prior to the advent of man on the landscape, and to reduce the threat of wildfire to local communities.
 
Prior to 2003 the Forest Service had attempted to get some small areas thinned as a part of logging contracts or as stand-alone thinning projects.  However, because the small diameter wood had no market value this was unsuccessful.  In 2003, due to the pressing need illustrated by various large fires throughout the west, Congress passed legislation that allowed the Forest Service to issue 10-year stewardship contracts that guaranteed funds for thinning a prescheduled amount of acreage.  Stewardship contracts of this length were new and considered very risky but the Apache-Sitgreaves took it on, in no small part because the Natural Resources Working Group offered strong and diverse local support for the experiment.
 
A 10-year contract for 15,000 acres per year was issued to Future Forests, a company formed by two local businesses. The legislation also required the formation of a multi-party monitoring board charged with identifying the areas to be monitored and the objectives to be met.  The board developed the social, economic, ecological, and administrative goals of the project. The information gathered now helps the Forest Service gauge outcomes of various procedures and prescriptions and adapt their implementation.  Several new ideas and methods have resulted in better management procedures. 
 
The major project goals are to restore forest health and wildlife habitat, protect communities from wildfire, and provide opportunities for local entrepreneurs.   It has, in the past five years, allowed local businesses to develop and invest in equipment to handle the small diameter wood, furthering the goal of developing sustainable markets that could lower the cost of the thinning.  Over 50,000 acres have been cleared, primarily but not exclusively around communities.  Preliminary indications are that within the thinned areas within the Wallow Fire the fire dropped down to a manageable level and saved structures in Alpine and Nutrioso.
 
The White Mountain Stewardship Project has set the stage for new and far bigger restoration projects, most notably the Four Forests Restoration Initiative (4FRI).  It encompasses the Apache-Sitgreaves, Kaibab, Coconino, and Tonto forests and will allow for much larger landscape restoration projects, anticipating a profound impact.  As with the White Mountain Stewardship Project, funding will be the factor that controls how much can be accomplished.  Hopefully the 4FRI will encourage the development of new markets and have a much-expanded impact on forest restoration.  For more information detailing the monitoring goals and how they were met, or not, see The First Five Years of the White Mountain Stewardship Project report at: http://azconservation.org/downloads/category/forest/
 
The rush to blame logging practices of the past or conservation groups for creating the conditions that fueled the Wallow fire is pointless and unwarranted.  A more positive approach would be to join the collaborative efforts of Forest Service, community leaders, small wood product businesses and conservationists in prioritizing and implementing projects funded by the Four Forest Restoration Initiative.