Initiative Aims to Restore and Regrow Arizona’s Forests

Up in Arizona’s northern reaches, an ambitious natural resource project is underway. The Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) is a 20-year plan aimed at restoring damaged ecosystems in sections of four national forests—Coconino, Kaibab, Apache-Sitgreaves and Tonto—that skirt the Mogollon Rim and stretch southeastward, to the New Mexico border.

Blanketed by Ponderosa pines, the striking forest regions along the rim have, over the past century, fallen victim to a variety of ills, causing the trees to grow thin and unhealthy. The net result is for an unbalancing of the delicate ecosystem, with diminishing plant and wildlife habitats and a greatly increased number of forest fires.

4FRI’s vision is to restore the forest to support healthy, diverse stands of trees, along with abundant repopulation of native plants and wildlife. In the process, the initiative will work to lessen the threat of wildfires, and create sustainable forest industries to aid in strengthening the local economy. The project will involve a variety of restoration efforts, and rely on a coalition of forest service personnel, partners and volunteers, and contractors to see them through.

“The Path Forward,” as the plan details have been dubbed, might read like a straightforward blueprint for progress, but the project’s scope is beyond massive. Eventually, nearly two and a half million acres of Arizona forest could be addressed by a painstaking process of selectively weaning out the thin, unhealthy tree specimens through “cutting orders” that typically involve 5,000 to 10,000 acres at a time. Such an enormous undertaking requires precision planning and substantial support.

The 4FRI project was born from a distinct need. With wildfires throughout the state’s forested regions increasing at an alarming rate over the past few decades, Arizona forest managers have been working overtime to try and find an answer to reducing them. At the same time, many other agencies and individuals, along with the general public, have become much more educated about the importance of healthy forests, and the need to better manage them.

In 2010, a group of 4FRI stakeholders came together to fine tune and launch the initiative. The stakeholders comprise 30 entities that represent state and federal agencies, ecological organizations, private businesses, conservation commissions and academic organizations. Among their other goals, the stakeholders recognize the need to establish a commercial economic component to the forest restoration effort. To that end, several businesses will play a key role in the project by being set up to harvest the designated “thin” trees, and then process and sell wood products made from them.

The project scope being so large, the 4FRI team is quick to point out that—even five years after it was launched—their work has just begun.

“Through collaboration, we are laying the groundwork to restore the landscape at the scale of the problem,” notes Diane Vosick, the current co-chair of the 4FRI stakeholder group and director of Policy and Partnerships for the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University. “These accomplishments are just the beginning for a ground-breaking project like 4FRI.”

Despite its scale, the initiative is already showing some impressive results. According to 4FRI team leader Annette Fredette, “Since the start of 4FRI…wildlife habitat, as well as watershed function and resilience, has been improved on approximately 300,000 acres.”

By Bruce Farr

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