Greater Flagstaff Forests Partnership

Posted: Apr 1, 2005
Written by: 
Brendan Smith
Location: Flagstaff, Arizona

Objective: The Greater Flagstaff Forests Partnership (GFFP) resulted from a cooperative agreement signed in 1998 with the Coconino National Forest. Its three primary goals are to: • Restore natural ecosystem composition, structure, and functions in ponderosa pine forests; • Manage forest fuels to reduce the probability of catastrophic fire and protect the community of Flagstaff; and • Research, test, develop, and demonstrate the key ecological, economic and social dimensions of forest restoration and community protection. GFFP works in five major areas: project design and implementation; development of economic alternatives for the use of small diameter trees and woody biomass removed from the area’s forests; evaluation of the effectiveness GFFP’s activities; education of the public and engagement of community members in GFFP’s work; and management and refinement of GFFP’s structure for accomplishing its work.

Participants: Voting members of GFFP’s Partnership Advisory Board (PAB) include Arizona Forest Restoration Products, the Arizona Land Department (Forestry Division), Flagstaff Fire Department, Coconino County Community Development Department, Coconino Natural Resource Conservation District, Coconino Rural Environment Corps, the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University (NAU), Mottek Consulting, the NAU School of Forestry, the Ponderosa Fire Advisory Council, The Arboretum at Flagstaff, The Nature Conservancy, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Wildwood Consulting. Associate members are the National Park Service (Flagstaff Area National Monuments), Arizona Game and Fish, and Arizona Public Service. GFFP’s Forest Service cooperators are the Coconino National Forest; the Rocky Mountain, Pacific Northwest, and Southern Research Stations; and the Forest Products Laboratory.

 Wildfire on the Coconino National Forest
Photo courtesy of USDA Forest Service
History: Almost a century of fire suppression, coupled with old-growth logging and overgrazing, left the ponderosa pine forests of northern Arizona choked with small trees and underbrush, dramatically increasing the risk of intense crown fires that scorch or destroy soils, wildlife habitat, and homes. After the fires of 1996 burned more than 75,000 acres in the Coconino and Kaibab national forests near Flagstaff and the Grand Canyon, the founders of GFFP had their first meeting. The collaborative effort (originally called the Grand Canyon Forests Foundation) that ensued was organized by the Grand Canyon Trust, and focused on finding a way to both address the forest health crisis and protect Flagstaff from wildfire. In 2002, GFFP became an independent 501(c)(3) nonprofit.

GFFP’s conceptual design was to begin west and southwest of the city – where fires that started in that area’s existing thick forest fuels would be pushed by prevailing winds directly into Flagstaff – and develop collaborative fuels reduction projects that eventually would encircle the community with a protective zone of treated land.

In 2003, GFFP negotiated a Memorandum of Understanding with the Forest Service that covers a 180,000 acre area of concern. Under the MOU, GFFP makes restoration recommendations to the Forest Service. The Forest Service considers them, along with other public input, and develops a range of potential restoration prescriptions for projects on its lands. After specific projects are selected, GFFP determines the work needed to be done by each party to the MOU, and both contribute the necessary financial resources and/or personnel (agency staff, GFFP volunteers). The PAB gives management direction to the GFFP working teams. The Forest Service manages the NEPA and public involvement processes, and administers all projects on national forest lands.

In 2005, GFFP (in coordination with the Ponderosa Fire Advisory Council) completed development of a Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP) under the Healthy Forests Restoration Act. It defined a wildland-urban interface (WUI) of 280,000 wooded acres surrounding the Greater Flagstaff Area, more than 100,000 acres of which are in the Coconino National Forest. GFFP began conducting environmental analyses to design thinning and burning projects within the WUI.

GFFP’s 2002 study, the Small Diameter Wood Utilization Report showed that with no local market for small-diameter trees culled from thinning efforts, the cost and complexity of Forest Service thinning projects had increased from an average of $350 to as much as $1,000 per acre. The study recommended the creation of a new restoration-based industry to utilize the biomass that would need to be removed to improve forest conditions and better protect Flagstaff from wildfire. GFFP initially worked with the Greater Flagstaff Economic Council (which ceased operations in 2007) and since has continued with other partners to try to secure long-term, large-scale commitments of wood fiber from the Forest Service and, based on that resource supply, attract businesses that produce value-added products.

A planned industrial park has suffered delays, but GFFP remains hopeful about development of a wood products campus and bio-energy plant. An environmental assessment of the site has been completed, and the schedule calls for tenants being accepted as early as mid-2009. GFFP has explored various other bio-energy options for utilizing woody forest biomass, such as sending it to the planned oriented strand board plant in Winslow and/or the planned ethanol plant in Bellemont – both of which are currently on hold because of the lack of long-term contracts for wood supply in the area, a problem GFFP hopes to resolve in 2009.

Accomplishments: In cooperation with the Forest Service, GFFP and its partners have:

    • Completed collaborative planning on all project areas in the 180,000 acres covered by the MOU. Planning has been done on 115,850 acres of Forest Service land, with 70,725 acres scheduled for treatment (49,750 for mechanical thinning and 20,975 for prescribed burning only);
    • Accomplished treatment (by the Forest Service and other landowners) of approximately 39,400 acres in the MOU-defined area;
    • Distributed over $216,300 in cost-share funds to assist private property owners in treating 794 acres in the WUI;
    • Obtained a Western Bark Beetle Initiative grant for $147,000 to address forest health on additional private lands through 2010;
    • Mechanically thinned approximately 5,200 WUI acres owned by the City of Flagstaff, the state, or private landowners;
    • Broadcast burned approximately 5,400 WUI acres;
    • Designed and begun implementation of the “partner mark” sites in the Mountainaire Project area, writing prescriptions and marking sites according to GFFP’s vision of an open forest structure with groups and clumps of uneven-aged trees;
    • Helped manage roads and trails to meet the competing interests of recreation and wildlife, including closing or obliterating some roads;
    • Ecologically restored the Chimney Springs meadow;
    • Designated and cleaned up campsites along Freidlein Prairie Road, a popular recreation area;
    • Established and maintained the City Well Field site as a demonstration area;
    • Nearly completed the FireWise kiosk at The Arboretum, using a State Fire Assistance public education grant;
    • Initiated a project evaluating the health impact of smoke from prescribed fire and firewood use;
    • Completed the Analysis of Small Diameter Wood Supply in Northern Arizona study; and
    • Started preparation of a “lessons learned” report.

 Meadow road closure
Photo courtesy of GFFP
Challenges/constraints: In 2007, declining revenues and continuing financial uncertainty led GFFP’s board of directors to restructure the organization into an all-volunteer entity that targets its limited funding to carrying out specific projects through contracted work. Temporary action teams (rather than the standing work teams that were used previously by the PAB) now guide activities and specific programs, and organizations or individuals with expertise specific to each task are contracted to accomplish on-the-ground actions. GFFP’s first trial of this methodology was a successful fuels reduction thinning project carried out by a contractor around the Devil’s Head communication tower site.

GFFP’s two financial forays into encouraging the development of value-adding wood product businesses were only moderately successful. In January 2004, GFFP awarded two Enterprise Development Fund grants to local businesses utilizing small-diameter trees. One company received $95,000 to purchase a micromill to cut peeled, small-diameter trees for use in Navajo hogan construction, but relatively high construction costs appeared to limit the market for the resulting structures. The second business received a $100,000 grant to buy a log splitter and shrink wrapper to process small trees into bulk bags of firewood. The firm produced firewood for about a year, and then discontinued operations. GFFP is hopeful that the equipment will be used by a new firewood factory that another local operator is considering starting.

Some organizations in the conservation community have participated actively with GFFP, but others either never joined the partnership or no longer attend GFFP meetings. Administrative appeals and litigation by some groups delayed Fort Valley, GFFP's first landscape-scale thinning project, from 1999 to 2001. The appellants eventually succeeded in imposing a 16-inch diameter cap on the size of trees that could be removed across more than 6,000 acres in the Coconino National Forest.

In spite of some setbacks, though, GFFP feels it has made significant progress, both in public awareness and education and in improved on-the-ground conditions. Explains Steve Gatewood, “Currently the environmental groups, Forest Service, and all the partners are working together to accelerate treatments and restore forests. Cutting of large trees (diameter caps) is still an issue, but we’ve been able to find common ground in community protection zones where accelerated tree thinning needs to occur.”
 Before treatment
 After treatment
Photos courtesy of USDA Forest Service

For more information see:

GFFP Homepage

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