The White Mountain Stewardship Project was the phoenix that arose from the ashes of the Rodeo-Chediski Fire. With the fire’s fury fresh in everyone’s minds, it was clear that old management methods, old animosities and old ways of doing business would not save forests and communities from massive wildfires.

Something had to change.

The groundbreaking White Mountain Stewardship Project (WMSP) was the catalyst for that change. The nation’s first-ever, large-scale, long-term forest treatment effort began in 2004 and continued for 10 years. The project also brought together loggers, environmentalists, agency staff of Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests, local officials and citizens who had previously battled one another.

The project aimed to thin 150,000 acres in 10 years. In 2014, at the completion of the project, WMSP had thinned 71,303 acres, removed nearly 2 million tons of biomass, and helped to kick-start the growth of new forest industries. The project created about 305 jobs, pumping about $19 million annually into the regional economy.

The project cost $50 million, but costs for fighting the Wallow Fire alone topped $100 million.

Right place, right time

The pieces of the puzzle seemed to align in the White Mountains, making it an ideal place to test large-scale stewardship forest treatments.

Congress enacted a law in 2003 creating stewardship contracting to thin forests to prevent wildfire and restore forest health.

National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) clearance had already been completed on thousands of acres of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests (ASNF). The NEPA studies had been done for timber sales that got caught in the environmental legal battles of the 1990s. A 1995 court injunction halted all timber harvest on the ASNF, but the completed NEPA clearances could now be used for thinning treatments.

The U.S. Forest Service Southwest Regional Office determined to provide added funding since the plan called for a federal subsidy of $500 to $1,000 per acre to get rid of the slash and saplings with no commercial value.

The remnants of the region’s once-booming local forest products industry jumped at the chance to rebuild their businesses.

Building relationships

Some individuals had already been talking across the political divide, working to create the trust that grew into the WMSP. The Natural Resources Working Group, a loosely organized bunch of local government officials, the Forest Service and environmentalists, formed the foundations for the WMSP to build on. The group had been meeting since the mid-1990s.

The members of the group focused on building trust “with concepts of inclusiveness, respectful interactions ... and a focus on working within existing laws,” according to a 2007 report about WMSP published by the Ecological Restoration Institute of Northern Arizona University.

“There was a lot of coalescing of ideas and frustration and recognition that everyone wasn’t going to get their way,” explained Bruce Greco.

Greco, currently the natural resources coordinator for Apache County, previously worked for the Forest Service and with the Ecological Restoration Institute. Greco has co-authored articles about the WMSP.

During the early phases, members of the Natural Resources Working Group sought the way forward. “We looked at — what can we do to get consensus?” Greco explained.

Fundamental change

The Forest Service had 100 years of experience handling traditional timber sale contracts, but little experience with stewardship contracts focused on small trees. The WMSP gave them the opportunity to give it a try.

“The Forest Service was looking at innovative ways to manage and treat for the removal of small trees,” Greco explained.

“And the regional office in Albuquerque had decided that with NEPA approval in place, the White Mountains was the best place to begin a pilot project,” he said.

In contrast with traditional contracts focused on large trees for saw timber, stewardship contracts focused on removing small-diameter timber and building new markets and industries. The Forest Service also had to learn to respond to collaborative decision making, all while trying to keep an eye on the budgets.

“The Forest Service had never done anything like this before. They had to figure out what is a stewardship contract,” Greco explained. “The Forest Service had to really step up, adapt and change,” he added.

Blue Ridge Demonstration Project

The initial Blue Ridge Demonstration Project helped solidify the relationships. The project involved thinning a stand of even-aged timber in the Pinetop-Lakeside District of the ASNF, in an area within the wildland-urban interface (WUI). The Natural Resources Working Group tested several approaches and agreed to cut no trees larger than 16 inches in diameter.

“(T)he group decided to start within the narrow zone of agreement in hopes that with time ... the zone of agreement would expand,” (Case Study of a Community Success: The White Mountain Stewardship Contract, Northern Arizona University, 2007). Different thinning “prescriptions” were used to test their overall effectiveness.

Bringing industry onboard

The Blue Ridge Demonstration Project also underlined the importance of bringing industry on-board. The project needed an infusion of money to convince businesses to bid on the projects. Moreover, the region had to develop a market for small-diameter timber.

WMSP provided a reliable supply of wood and funding so local industry could develop and invest in new ways to use a type of product for which no market then existed.

Forest Energy, a Show Low wood pellet company, partnered with logger W.B. Contracting to form Future Forest LLC. The pair then could bid on the first stewardship contract.

In the first four years of the project, 20 businesses produced posts and poles, heating pellets, dimensional lumber and other products. That number grew to 24 by the end of the project. Federal grants totaling $3.2 million helped seed the project.

Setbacks and a legacy of success

Overall, most of the people involved in the WMSP consider the project a success, but two major setbacks hindered the overall progress.

First, the Great Recession of 2008 slowed the economy and affected the businesses involved in the thinning contracts.

Second, the 2011 Wallow Fire consumed thousands of acres ready for thinning treatments, and diverted Forest Service funds and personnel to fire and fire recovery activities.

Ironically, the Wallow Fire also demonstrated the vital nature of the project — since thinning projects saved Alpine and other communities.

However, the WMSP created a framework for future landscape-scale restoration projects — including the massive Four Forest Restoration Initiative.

Sue Sitko, Northern Arizona conservation manager for the Nature Conservancy worked on the stewardship project from beginning to end.

“The importance of the WMSP was at least threefold. First and foremost, it helped reduce fire hazard around many of our White Mountain communities, evidenced by the Wallow Fire of 2011 where it came through Alpine, Greer, Nutrioso, and Eagar. WMSP thinning activities allowed for many structures to be saved ...

“Second, it built trust between conservation, industry, and agency interests, as we worked together to resolve issues and move forward with forest restoration.

“Third, this foundation of trust was a platform for the nation’s largest forest restoration project, the Four Forest Restoration Initiative,” she said.

Spark by Pia Wyer

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