The old “yellow-belly” ponderosa pines anchoring the majestic forests of the Grand Canyon’s North Rim grew up long before European settlement. Precious few remain.
More than 1,000 of them will be lost forever in the “Wild Buck” timber sale later this year, undercutting U.S. Forest Service claims that it is restoring this fire-adapted forest ecosystem.
Data obtained under the Freedom of Information Act shows that 38 percent of timber volume in the Wild Buck sale will come from logging 1,174 trees larger than 24-inches diameter. Field surveys by the Center for Biological Diversity revealed that many of those giant trees stood tall when the United States declared independence well over 200 years ago.
Old-growth pines are rare as a result of past logging. Their towering canopies and thick bark make them naturally fire resistant.
Hundreds of thousands of smaller trees that would have burned off as saplings during natural fire events have encroached on the forest during a century of fire suppression. Small trees now blanket Arizona’s forests like kindling.
Wild Buck is part of a larger project spanning 20,000 acres on the north rim with a stated purpose to reduce fire hazard and restore historic forest conditions.
The Forest Service assured the public last year that “little more than 1 percent” of trees to be removed from the North Rim are larger than 16 inches diameter.
However, nearly 30 percent of trees to be cut in the Wild Buck sale — 78 percent of total volume — are larger than 16 inches diameter. In other words, the Forest Service’s first move out of the gate in a “forest restoration” project is to sell thousands of large and old trees for commercial purposes rather than meeting its own mandate to clear small trees for fire safety.
Ponderosa pine forests need small-tree thinning to safely reintroduce natural low-intensity fires without causing undue harm to wildlife and the amenities that people cherish.
Recognizing this, the Center for Biological Diversity collaborated with partners of all political stripes to develop an old-growth protection and large-tree-retention strategy for the historic Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) that will expedite thinning across millions of acres.
Unfortunately the Forest Service dismissed the collaborative 4FRI strategy and routinely rejects good-faith restoration proposals from the public, opting instead to log big, old trees, as evidenced by the Wild Buck timber sale.
Wild Buck is separate from the 4FRI, but it is on the same national forest (Kaibab) dressed with the same restoration purpose. It demonstrates the Forest Service’s willingness to exploit a lack of accountability and mine large, fire-resistant trees from the landscape.
At a time when the Forest Service claims to be working with stakeholders to do the right thing, the Wild Buck timber sale is a vivid example of what’s wrong with the agency. Its addiction to logging big, old trees and its refusal to collaborate in management of public forests demonstrate a need for better leadership and reform.
Reform should start with permanent protection of the irreplaceable old-growth pillars of our region’s unique natural history.
Jay Lininger is a senior scientist with the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity. Read him via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.