Concerns about a business plan
"The Forest Service will push for as much logging discretion that they can get," McKinnon added. The center, along with another stakeholder, the Grand Canyon Trust, did not approve of the Forest Service's decision to grant the stewardship contract to Pioneer, instead of Arizona Forest Restoration Products. The fact that Pioneer has yet to secure funding for its work has fueled critics even more.
"We were and are skeptical of that decision," McKinnon said. "We don't think that their business plan is a viable one."
In order for a business to serve the ecological need of the forests, McKinnon added, it must use really small wood, which is not in Pioneer's business model. Its plan for a biodiesel plant is based on "totally speculative technology," he said.
But most importantly, McKinnon said, is that the Forest Service is not taking into account the future landscape of the forests. He cited a series of recent studies by Los Alamos National Laboratory scientist Park Williams that found that, by midcentury, the Southwest will see conditions worse than the worst historical drought conditions, ones that are likely to wipe out huge swathes of forests.
"If you think of what that research means, it means that these forests aren't going to be here a century from now," McKinnon said. "Regardless of what we do now."
A large die-off of forests in a climate-changed world is likely, Williams said. But that reinforces the need for restoration.
"When you think of how forests die, they usually die in large events, fires and bark beetle outbreaks," Williams said. "These catastrophic events can spread very easily. With some active management, it won't get wiped out with a large wildfire."
Restoring forests and saving watersheds
At this particular meeting, a local scientist explained how 4FRI would protect the habitat for the Mexican spotted owl, a species of particular concern in the area. The project would include more than 980,000 acres of "bridge habitat," or connections from one "clump" to another, said Sarah Reif, a wildlife biologist with Arizona Fish and Game.
In addition to providing habitat for the Mexican spotted owl, this would protect the populations of black bears, turkeys, mule deer and tassel-eared squirrels.
The presentation served to calm stakeholders who may have been anxious about the level of treatment.
"When we talk about treatments, they say, 'Oh, my God, there's heavy treatment everywhere, there's going to be nothing left,'" she said. "They weren't even aware there were a lot of areas that were going to be left in denser conditions."
Amy Waltz, program director of science delivery for the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University, said linking these clumps could possibly re-create something that didn't exist historically. It could artificially increase the populations of some species.
Another stakeholder at the meeting was Paul Summerfelt, a wildland fire management officer for the city of Flagstaff who runs the city's watershed protection project. Last fall, residents passed a $10 million bond measure to plan, conduct and monitor treatments to prevent the devastation that occurred in the Schultz fire's aftermath, on Forest Service land and some state-managed land.
The project seeks to protect Flagstaff's two watersheds: Lake Mary, which provides half the city's water supply, and the Rio de Flag/Dry Lake Hills watershed. "If [the vegetation] burned off and we had that kind of flood event, it would be really devastating to the community long term," he said.
Summerfelt expects to be able to restore the area in the next eight to 10 years. Denver and Santa Fe, N.M., have established similar fee-based systems to restore forests around local waters, but Flagstaff is the first city to fund such a system with voter support, he said.