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Apache County: We’ll thin nat'l forest land, send bill to feds

Citing wildfires and floods that have devastated portions of Apache County, leaders there say they plan to thin national forests themselves and bill the federal government.

The county Board of Supervisors passed a resolution last week declaring a state of emergency and accusing federal and state agencies of inadequate forest management based on ill-advised environmental policies. The move came months after this summer’s Wallow Fire, the largest in Arizona history.

Doyel Shamley, natural resource coordinator for Apache County, said nothing major has been done to protect the forests since the Rodeo-Chediski Fire burned more than 450,000 acres of eastern Arizona in 2002.

“We have no choice but to step in with the full authority of the county,” Shamley said.

New Mexico’s Otero County adopted a similar resolution in June, saying it has the authority to conduct emergency thinning of national forests and ignore environmental regulations to protect communities.

Shamley said counties have the authority because the U.S. Forest Service only has custodial powers over forests and because the agency has failed to coordinate with local governments and tribes as required by law.

“In light of all this, the county does have the supremacy within the state,” he said.

Cathie Schmidlin, a Flagstaff-based regional spokeswoman for the Forest Service, didn’t respond directly to the county’s claim of legal authority but said the agency understands its concerns and intends to work together to resolve the management issues.

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“Let’s remain committed to getting something done and following the environmental regulations that we need to follow when managing the national forests,” she said.

Schmidlin said examples of the Forest Service’s commitment to helping communities include the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, which sets out to manage nearly 1 million acres of national forests in the Southwest through thinning, prescribed burns and contracts for companies to harvest trees for use in wood pellet stoves or biomass energy plants.

“It’s definitely not time to step backwards,” she said. “We have to move forward with what’s being addressed.”

Sandy Bahr, director of the Sierra Club’s Grand Canyon Chapter, said federal public lands belong to the people of the U.S. and that it would be unfair to leave management up to a county.

“(The forests) are part of our legacy as Americans, and they belong to all of us and future generations,” Bahr said. “This generation doesn’t just get to swipe them from the rest.”‘

Bahr added that Apache County lacks the resources to manage such large tracts of land and deal with complex environmental considerations.

“One county entity shouldn’t, and I would argue does not, have the capacity to address those issues,” she said.

The Apache County resolution says cooperation between federal, state and county governments has failed and that the county has sustained significant damage to the health, safety and economic welfare of its residents.

In addition to a request for emergency federal and state funding for forest thinning, the county calls on Congress to conduct an investigation into why federal and state agencies aren’t following laws to protect public safety and economic losses from mismanagement. These laws weren’t detailed in the resolution.

State Rep. Tom Chabin, D-Flagstaff, said he understands the county’s frustrations but doesn’t believe the approach is realistic.

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“We’re all fighting this, but I really doubt that any county government has the capacity to marshal all those resources to do what needs to be done in those forests,” he said.

In New Mexico’s Otero County, situated within the Lincoln National Forest in the south-central part of the state, county commissioners passed their resolution with the support of U.S. Rep. Steve Pearce, R-N.M., whose district includes the area.

In a statement emailed by his press secretary, Jamie Dickerman, Pearce said communities like Otero and Apache County are standing up and saying “enough is enough.”

“Logging bans have disallowed the proper thinning of the forests – depleting our watersheds, endangering animals and putting our communities at risk,” Pearce said.

In Apache County, Shamley said, there’s an urgent need to step in and thin forests before fire season resumes in the spring.

“We cannot wait any longer,” Shamley said.

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The Wallow Fire burned for more than a month and scorched 538,049 acres across eastern Arizona, including more than 15,000 acres in New Mexico. The Apache County Board of Supervisors passed a resolution last week declaring a state of emergency and accusing federal and state agencies of inadequate forest management based on ill-advised environmental policies.

Wallow Fire details

  • Began May 29 at approximately 1:30 p.m.
  • Started southeast of Alpine, just west of U.S. Highway 191.
  • Total burn area reached 538,049 acres, including more than 15,000 in New Mexico.