How much would you pay to clean up Verde watershed?

New program seeks public investment in forest thinning, erosion control

The Oak Creek Erosion Control Project is part of the new Northern Arizona Forest Fund. VVN/Ed Bustya

The Oak Creek Erosion Control Project is part of the new Northern Arizona Forest Fund. VVN/Ed Bustya

VERDE VALLEY - Everything flows downstream eventually.

That includes sediment from bad roads. That includes ashy flood runoff after forest fires.

That is why the Salt River Project has climbed on board with the National Forest Foundation to protect the state's major watersheds. Eventually, a lot of that surface water ends up as SRP's responsibility.

Together SRP and the NFF have created the Northern Arizona Forest Fund (NAFF). And they want Arizonans to join the project.

Arizona's wildfires not only devastate its forests but also can damage its cherished watersheds. The NAFF goals include reducing wildfire risk, improving streams, restoring animal habitat and native plants and maintaining recreational opportunities.

Its proposal states: "On a regular basis, funds will be deployed to complete high priority restoration projects on National Forests in the Salt and Verde River watersheds."

Its first projects are the Upper Beaver Creek Forest Health Project and the Oak Creek Erosion Control Project.

"These are ready to go. They are fully planned and ready to be implemented," said Marcus Selig, the NFF's Colorado program director. "There will be other projects every year."

"I'm really excited as well that the first two projects identified were in the Verde watershed," said Jeffrey Lane of SRP.

Oak Creek

The Oak Creek project includes the entire length of the creek from south of Flagstaff, through Sedona and all the way down to its confluence with the Verde River. The project focuses on improving road drainage along 20 miles of roads in the creek's watershed and repairing the heavily used roads in the Red Rock District.

Poor road drainage has led to sediment build-up in the streams. Sediment is listed as the main cause of poor water quality in Arizona rivers.

Beaver Creek

On the other side of Interstate 17, the Upper Beaver Creek project has short-term and long-term goals. The first year (2014-15) they want to thin 150 acres and conduct prescribed burning on 1,000 acres. That will lead to thinning 16,000 acres and prescribed burning on 44,000 acres by the end of the project.

The area is in the ponderosa woods of the Coconino National Forest. First-year labor will include hand-crews with chainsaws.

Public Investment

First-year costs for the Beaver Creek project are expected to be $300,000. For the Oak Creek project, the costs are projected to be $200,000 in the first year.

SRP and NFF are dedicating funds to the cause, but they intend for Arizonans and businesses to invest in the project.

"Everyone has a stake in the forest," Selig said, "from a water standpoint or environmental standpoint or animal standpoint. "People want to be involved, and this provides a mechanism that allows people to do that."

Those who contribute $25 or more get a one-year membership in the NFF and a subscription to its magazine. Businesses that get involved will have helpful marketing. Selig said contributors will receive yearly progress reports.

Lane said the projects have already gone through the lengthy federal approval process of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). That has given them the green flag to move forward.

According to Lane, the NEPA process is part of what slowed down efforts by the Four Forest Restoration Initiative as it engages in forest-thinning work in the Coconino, Kaibab, Tonto and Apache-Sitgreaves national forests. 4FRI, too, seeks to take out the smallest trees in densely forested areas to better control Arizona's infamous wildfires.

4FRI

In 2011, wildfires burned more than 1 million acres of forests in Arizona. That led to public outcry for better management of forest lands. That led to the creation of the stakeholder-driven 4FRI.

The Mogollon Rim District of the Coconino Forest will have three 4FRI task orders in operation within the area designated as the Upper Beaver Creek Forest Health Project at the same time as the NAFF work, according to District Ranger Linda Wadleigh. There will also be a separate timber sales project there. That is being coordinated so there is no overlap of "treatment areas."

The 4FRI task orders, one current and two for next year, are on schedule, Wadleigh said.

The public's interest in 4FRI success proves "people really want to see this happen," Selig said.

Following that thought process, the National Forest Foundation wants to "engage American stewardship of the land and enhance national forest land," he said.

The Northern Arizona Forest Fund is an innovative way of creating that public engagement.

For more information or to get involved, visit http://www.nationalforests.org/azforestfund.

-- Follow the reporter on Twitter @LOUFLU and Instagram @VerdeValleyNews

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