Tusayan Ranger District seeks public comments on forest restoration project

GRAND CANYON, Ariz. - The U.S. Forest Service wants to treat 7,300-acre area on the Tusayan Ranger District (TRD) in the spring of 2016.

The forest would implement the project by cutting down and removing ponderosa pine, pinyon pine and juniper trees as well as using some prescribed fires to treat the area.

According to the Forest Service, the Randall Restoration Project would promote the establishment of under grasses, and browse species, enhanced wildlife habitat, provide firewood and Christmas trees for members of the public, protect the area from wildfires, leave a healthy, resilient forest and move the area towards desired conditions identified in the Land and Resource Management Plan (LRMP) for the Kaibab National Forest.

Currently the area consists of densely stocked ponderosa pine forest and pinyon-juniper woodlands.

"Because tree density and dead surface fuel loadings exceed desired conditions and diversity in pinyon-juniper woodlands is low, there is a need to remove trees, surface fuel and ladder fuel from the Randall Planning Area," the Forest Service stated in a recent public scoping letter.

James Simino, district ranger for the Tusayan Ranger District in the Kaibab National Forest, said the project has similar objectives as the Forest Services' 4FRI decision.

"The three sites that are to the east side of town are small groups of young pine. They're kind of in that 4FRI (Four Forest Restoration Initiative) footprint but in the 4FRI decision we are not allowed to cut the small vegetation under an inch. To help us do the landscape prescribed burns we need to be able to get those small trees on the ground and be able to remove them to the fuel treatment part, otherwise they'll just grow into the bigger ladder fuels," he said. "This will allow us to better treat the fuel, in combination with the 4FRI decision. We are going in there to do fuels treatment as well, (it is) very similar to what's being done on 4FRI."

The 7,300-acre project area includes four separate areas near Tusayan.

"One area, the southwest chunk, is about three miles southwest of Tusayan, just west of Highway 64," said Quentin Johnson project director for the project. "The other three areas are just east of Tusayan. One is real close to the Ten X Ranch and one borders the Grand Canyon National Park just a mile or two east of Tusayan and the last is about three miles southeast of Tusayan."

The project is designed based on specific criteria that will guide project activities to help maintain wildlife habitat components and protect resources.

These include silvicultural prescription, which is designed to remove small trees and protect large, old ponderosa pine trees with reddish-yellow, wide platy bark, flattened tops, moderate to full crowns and large drooping or gnarled limbs.

Coordination with fire managers for thinning and burning will ensure thinning slash is disposed of in a manner that meets objectives and moves the area towards desired conditions.

A prescribed fire plan would be similar to those written and implemented on many other successful prescribed burn projects on the Tusayan Ranger District.

The Forest Service plans to work with Grand Canyon National Park on the one parcel located on the boundary with Grand Canyon National Park.

"That's one that we are going to go ahead and move ahead on earlier than the others," Simino said. "We are going to be working on a burn plan that covers both sides of that boundary and working together with Grand Canyon National Park to treat that area."

According to the Forest Service, the best management practices related to prescribed burning would be followed in order to meet objectives, protect property and keep firefighters and the public safe.

Prescribed fires are part of the project plan. The Forest Service said smoke management will be taken into consideration and is one of the only impacts they can see that the project could have on visitors to Grand Canyon and for local residents.

"That's the number one way, I feel, that this project could impact the visitors here," Johnson said. "We do try to pick the best days where smoke will dissipate quickly or blow off in the direction that is away from the Grand Canyon. We are always thinking about that on our burns."

The Grand Canyon National Park is a Class 1 Airshed, and the Grand Canyon Airport is a sensitive smoke receptor. The Forest Service said the best management practices related to smoke management would be followed during the prescribed fires.

Additionally, coordination between the Forest Service, the Park Service, and the Arizona Department of Environmental Quality would occur in order to minimize smoke impacts to locals and visitors.

If the public is allowed to cut live or dead trees within the planning area, written permits would be issued to each member of the public who is allowed to cut for firewood and Christmas tree purposes.

Additionally, an archaeological and cultural resource survey will be completed prior to implementation of the project. Fire-sensitive artifacts and heritage sites would be protected during prescribed fire implementation.

Finally, live and dead trees may be cut, trees may be completely removed from the national forest, scattered throughout the planning area, hand piled, or machine piled. Tree removal and piling could include cross-country travel, however, there will be no new or temporary road construction.

In general, thinning would be designed to remove smaller trees, create openings, and move the area towards desired condition. Within the western and northern planning area blocks, around 80 percent of the area could be thinned.

Within the two eastern planning area blocks, around 30 percent of the area could be thinned.

Simino said that depending on funding for the project, the Forest Service could conduct the project goals themselves or work with other entities to accomplish the thinning and burns.

"There could be other entities that could be helping," Simino said. "Depending on where we get our funding from, we could either contract it our or do it through agreements...we have our own folk that do that work too. So there's numerous tools to complete the work, this decision will just allow us to do the work."

Upon completion of the project the Forest Service hopes for Pinyon-Juniper woodlands to be a shifting mosaic of young and mature tree groups interspersed with openings, which would be ideal conditions for the Randall Restoration Project area.

The Forest Service would like to implement the Randall Restoration Project sometime in the spring of 2016 - the exact dates will be determined based on funding for the project.

"That's really more funding driven than anything and work load driven," Simino said. "The priority is going to be 4FRI, if we can tie some of this work into that we are going to do it."

The Forest Service is currently conducting a public comment period for this project.

For more information on the project can be found at, www.gs.usd.gov/project?project=47075. Comments should be submitted by July 9.

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