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Feds, Apache County launch partnership to thin forests, tame fires

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WASHINGTON – The U.S. Forest Service and Apache County have launched a first-of-its-kind management plan to thin more than 90,000 acres of forest in hopes of preventing catastrophic fires like last year’s record Wallow Fire.

The partnership grew out of county accusations last year that decades of forest mismanagement by the Forest Service aggravated the Wallow Fire, the largest in the state’s history. Since then, the two sides have come together and developed a program for the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest that they hope can be repeated around the country.

“We’re working very well with the Forest Service,” said Apache County Manager Delwin Wengert. “It’s a win-win for everyone – it helps the county, it helps the Forest Service, it helps the residents and it’s a model for future projects.”

Work began May 23 with a crew of 18 workers – professionals, recent high school graduates and college students – who are cutting down trees with less than 9-inch diameters in the Greer area. After an area is cut, the cleared materials will be burned by the Forest Service, with the county providing some equipment and support staff.

The goal is to reduce fuel sources and minimize the impact of future fires. Doyel Shamley, the county’s natural resources coordinator, said there’s already a visible difference in the forest.

Shamley said he expects the first 75 acres near Greer to be cleared by the end of the summer. After that, crews will systematically focus on clearing more than 90,000 acres of land, operating around spotted-owl season, fire season and restrictions imposed because of the current drought.

The agreement, signed in February, will extend five years. Jim Zornes, forest supervisor for the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, said it calls for the county to act as a contractor to the government and be paid per acre that is thinned.

Zornes said that cooperative effort is essential to managing the forests.

“A wildfire doesn’t stop at a boundary. It doesn’t stop at a fence or at private lands,” he said. “It doesn’t make any difference if it’s tribal lands, national or local. When it burns, it burns.”

That was brought home to Apache County residents in last year’s Wallow Fire, which burned more than 538,000 acres and destroyed 52 structures in the county. Shamley said the county had complained that the Forest Service needed to more quickly reduce the amount of fuel in the forests that could stoke such a fire.

In October, months after the Wallow Fire burned out, the county passed a resolution declaring a state of emergency and saying it would thin the forests itself. It accused the government of neglecting its custodial duties and of failing to coordinate with local governments and tribes as required by law.

“It’s the county putting its foot down,” Shamley said of the resolution. “They all accused us of being rebels, but we just need to protect our towns.”

County Supervisor John Lee said that in the face of the Wallow Fire, it was imperative to let the Forest Service know the county was serious about the resolution.

“We decided if they didn’t want to deal with us, that they would understand that we’re not just potted plants out here,” Lee said. “It took over a half-million acres of land to finally wake us up and make us drive our tent stakes in the ground.”

The Forest Service bristled at the accusations, releasing a report in August detailing how its actions saved homes during the fire. But Zornes said things changed when Shamley took him to Greer last winter to show the extent of the wildfire’s devastation.

“There was some consternation here that we weren’t moving fast enough,” Zornes said. “But I was actually shocked that we had not communicated well enough to see each other’s position. That’s all it took – a little ride in a Ford Escape into the snow to see the area in question.”

As part of the agreement, the county will also work with property owners to better protect their structures and reduce the risk of fire to neighboring properties. That program was to be introduced to residents in a community meeting Wednesday night.

The project itself will total about $80,000 in funds and in-kind donations this summer, but Shamley said the overall impact on the local economy has been estimated at around $500,000. But he said the efforts will affect more than people’s homes and livelihoods.

“Within three days of the cutting, we were already seeing chipmunks running around, and the deer are coming back,” Shamley said.

Zornes and Shamley also said that some of the extracted wood will be given back to the community for use as firewood.

“Every acre counts. This forest in the last 10 years has had a million acres of fire,” Zornes said. “So what we’re trying to do is take the intensity down so it’s something we can manage.”