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« on: August 03, 2007, 09:56:32 am »

[Federal Register: August 3, 2007 (Volume 72, Number 149)]
[Notices]               
[Page 43225-43228]
From the Federal Register Online via GPO Access [wais.access.gpo.gov]
[DOCID:fr03au07-32]                         

-----------------------------------------------------------------------

DEPARTMENT OF AGRICULTURE

Forest Service

 
Pinale[ntilde]o Ecosystem Restoration Project, Safford Ranger
District, Coronado National Forest, Graham County, Arizona

AGENCY: Forest Service, USDA.

ACTION: Notice of intent to prepare an environmental impact statement.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------

SUMMARY: In accordance with the President's Council on Environmental
Quality (CEQ) Regulations Implementing the Procedural Provisions of the
National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) of 1969, the U.S. Department
of Agriculture, Forest Service, Coronado National Forest, announces its
intent to prepare an

[[Page 43226]]

Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) to evaluate a proposed action to
thin dense forests, remove standing dead trees and down woody debris,
and use prescribed fire on approximately 3,705 acres in the
Pinale[ntilde]o Mountains in Graham County, Arizona, within Townships 8
and 9 South, Ranges 23 and 24 East, Gila and Salt River Meridian. These
treatments would be carried out over a 10-year period for the purposes
of restoring a fire-adapted ecosystem and aiding in the recovery of the
Mount Graham red squirrel population and habitat.

DATES: Comments concerning the scope of the EIS analysis must be
received by 30 days following the publication of this notice. The Draft
EIS is expected to be filed with the Environmental Protection Agency
(EPA) in the spring of 2008. At that time, EPA will publish a Notice of
Availability (NOA) of the Draft EIS in the Federal Register, which will
begin a period of public review of the Draft EIS. The review period
will comprise 45 days from the date of publication of the NOA in the
Federal Register. The Final EIS is scheduled to be completed in the
summer of 2008.

ADDRESSES: Written comments on this notice may be mailed to the Craig
Wilcox, Forest Silviculturist, Coronado National Forest, Safford Ranger
District, 711 S. 14th Ave., Suite D, Safford, AZ 85546. Written
comments may also be sent by facsimile to Mr. Wilcox at (928) 428-2393.
Comments may be submitted by electronic mail to cpwilcox@fs.fed.us.
Envelopes and the subject line of electronic mail messages or faxes
should be labeled ``Pinale[ntilde]o Ecosystem Restoration Project
EIS.''

FOR FURTHER INFORMATION CONTACT: For information on the Pinale[ntilde]o
Ecosystem Restoration Project, please contact Mr. Craig Wilcox, Forest
Silviculturist, Coronado National Forest, at the above address, and
telephone (928) 348-1961. Questions on the Forest Service NEPA process
may be directed to Ms. Andrea Wargo Campbell, Forest NEPA Coordinator,
at 300 W. Congress St., Tucson, AZ 85701, and telephone (520) 388-8352.

SUPPLEMENTARY INFORMATION:

Background

    Over the past 100 years, fire suppression and other factors have
diminished the natural ecological role of fire in the Pinale[ntilde]o
Mountains on the Safford Ranger District of the Coronado National
Forest, resulting in a higher than average stand density and a heavy
accumulation of dead and downed trees (fuel load). Both of these forest
conditions increase the probability and consequences of severe wildland
fire occurrence in the area.
    In 1996 and 2004, large-acreage, high-intensity wildland fires
exacerbated a reduction in the population of the Federally endangered
Mount Graham red squirrel (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus grahamensis) through
habitat loss and mortality. Also, since 1996, progressive insect
infestations have defoliated and killed trees in the spruce-fir and
mixed-conifer forests of the Pinale[ntilde]o Mountains. Tree mortality
associated with these outbreaks has exacerbated the probability of
wildland fire and contributed further to a decline in the red squirrel
population through habitat loss. Today, the population of the red
squirrel is at its lowest point since censuses were initiated in 1986,
and the viability of the species is of paramount concern to both the
Forest Service and other Federal and state wildlife management
agencies.
    In May 2005, the Forest Service developed a tentative proposal to
treat this area of the Forest to decrease the probability of severe
wildland fire and improve general forest health. At that time, a
scoping notice was distributed to the public requesting comments on the
proposal, and two open house meetings were held to explain the nature
of the treatments that were planned to be implemented. Based on public
input and a continued decline in the squirrel population, the Forest
Service has since recognized the need for further refinement of the
proposed action to achieve a balance between short-term protection of
squirrel habitat and long-term forest restoration. Thus, in 2007, a
refined proposed action was developed to emphasize a concurrent
reduction in the potential for severe wildland fire impacts and insect
and disease outbreaks, while managing for long-term sustainability of
red squirrel habitat. Given the sensitive nature of any proposed Forest
treatments to the red squirrel and its habitat, the Forest Service
decided to prepare an EIS that would provide a robust analysis to the
decisionmaker, cooperating agencies and the public.

Proposed Action

    The proposed action that will be evaluated in this EIS includes
both on-the-ground treatments to improve Forest health and improve or
protect red squirrel habitat; and administrative actions to incorporate
amendments to the governing Forest Land and Resource Management Plan
(Forest Plan), the latter of which will allow on-the-ground treatments
to be implemented.
    On the ground, approximately 3,705 acres of Forest would receive
various combinations of silvicultural prescriptive treatments and/or
fuel reduction actions, which include mechanical treatments and
prescribed fire. To accomplish the proposed action, the Forest Plan
must be amended to allow Christmas tree removal and public fuelwood
gathering and to establish less restrictive Visual Quality Objectives
(VQO) in the project area. Thus, the EIS will also evaluate proposed
action of amending the Forest Plan to change current standards and
guidelines for the project area.
    The proposed action would implement more than 50 combinations of
vegetation treatment options, depending on stand density and other
physical conditions. These combinations will follow two general
treatment strategies tiered from management guidance for the Mount
Graham red squirrel and the Mexican spotted owl.
    Live-tree thinning, using a combination of variable density,
thinning from below, and group selection thinning techniques, is
proposed as a silvicultural treatment on approximately 2,862 acres. In
this treatment area, no live or dead trees larger than 18-inches
diameter at breast height (dbh) would be removed on 1,773 acres; larger
than 12-inches dbh on 47 acres; and larger than 9 inches dbh on 1,042
acres. Pockets of standing dead trees (up to 18-inches dbh) would be
removed in areas where high tree mortality has occurred because of
wildland fire and/or insect infestations.
    Forest fuel reduction treatments would generally occur in the same
areas where silvicultural treatments are proposed. These actions
include masticating small trees (461 acres); lopping and scattering of
trees less than 9 inches diameter (3,092 acres); underburning (2,642
acres); hand piling and burning small trees (1,612 acres); and pruning
trees in treatment units that are along major roads.
    Vegetation that is not mechanically reduced onsite would be removed
from treatment units and transferred to collection points (landings)
using ground-based mechanical removal equipment, cable logging systems,
and/or manual, hand-based labor. The transfer method for each treatment
unit would depend upon topography, availability of road access, cost,
and resource protection needs. After material is removed from treatment
units and taken to landings, it would be processed into sawlogs,
firewood, or chips, and trucked from the project area. Some material
may be piled and burned at the landing site.

[[Page 43227]]

    All proposed treatments would include resource-specific design
criteria to guide the manner in which the actions are implemented in
order to minimize or reduce anticipated effects. Treatments are
expected to continue in the project area for up to a period of ten
years.

Purpose of and Need for Action

    The purpose of this proposed action is to restore Forest ecosystem
health and to protect habitat or restore degraded habitat for the
endangered Mount Graham red squirrel.
    Current fuel loads and stand densities in the project area are much
greater than historic forest conditions, leaving the forest
increasingly vulnerable to disease, insect infestations, and fire. The
ecological implications of these shifts have led to increased
susceptibility of the Forest to insect outbreaks and stand-replacing
fires. Therefore, there is a need to initiate restoration of natural
ecological processes and to treat the causes of declining ecosystem
health by reducing stand densities, changing understory species
composition, and reducing fuel loading. Restoration seeks to return
forests, or to initiate an ecological trajectory to return forests, to
a condition that is self-sustaining and compatible with the conditions
under which they naturally evolved.
    According to the Mount Graham Red Squirrel Recovery Plan (USDI Fish
and Wildlife Service, 1993, Arizona Ecological Services State Office,
Phoenix, AZ), the main threats to this endangered subspecies are
habitat loss and catastrophic wildland fire. Over the past 20 years,
approximately 50% of previously occupied red squirrel habitat has been
rendered unsuitable due to insect outbreaks and fire. Associated with
this reduction in habitat, there is an accompanying decline in
population size; the current population estimate is 216 squirrels. As
such, the remaining habitat, most of which falls within the project
area, is of high importance. Therefore, a need exists to protect red
squirrel habitat within the project area from losses due to fire,
insect outbreaks, and diseases, and to restore areas of degraded
habitat for this subspecies.

Preliminary Identification of Issues

    Based on a preliminary review of the proposed action, the following
issues were identified:
    1. Short term impacts to the Mexican spotted owl may occur.
    2. The efficacy of fuel reduction treatments proposed in this
project is limited by the need to protect the Mount Graham red
squirrel.
    3. An increase of interspecies competition from the introduced
Abert's squirrel with the Mount Graham red squirrel may result due to
an increase in pine species.
    4. An increase of avian predation on the Mount Graham red squirrel
may result due to a reduction in hiding cover.

Responsible Official

    Jeanine Derby, Forest Supervisor, Coronado National Forest, will be
the Responsible Official who prepares the Record of Decision at the
conclusion of this NEPA review. The address for the Coronado National
Forest is 300 W. Congress St., Tucson, AZ 85701.

Nature of NEPA Decision To Be Made

    The Coronado National Forest Supervisor's decision will address
implementation of: (1) The proposed action, including Forest Plan
amendments, (2) (an) alternative(s) to the proposed action and/or
amendments if any exist, or (3) the no-action alternative; and approve
or disapprove each of three proposed amendments to the Forest Plan.

Comments Requested

    The Forest Service encourages citizens to express issues, concerns,
and suggestions they may have about this proposed action. Comments
should be directly related to the proposed action to best assist us in
our environmental impacts analysis. Although comments are welcome at
any time, they will be most useful to us if they are received by 30
days following the publication of this notice If you have any questions
about this notice or the comment process, please contact Craig Wilcox,
Forest Silviculturist, Coronado National Forest, Safford Ranger
District, at telephone (928) 348-1961, prior to submitting your
comments.
    Written comments on this notice may be mailed to Craig Wilcox,
Forest Silviculturist, Coronado National Forest, Stafford Ranger
District, 711 S. 14th Ave., Suite D, Safford, AZ 85546. You may also
submit written comments by facsimile to Mr. Wilcox at (928) 428-2393.
Comments may be submitted by electronic mail to cpwilcox@fs.fed.us.
Envelopes and the subject line of electronic mail messages or faxes
should be labeled ``Pinale[ntilde]o Ecosystem Restoration Project
EIS.''
    Comments and personal information associated with them, such as
names and addresses, will become part of the administrative project
record for this NEPA review. As such, they may be made available to a
third-party upon request pursuant to the Freedom of Infomation act
(FOIA). If you do not wish your personal information to be subject to
release under FOIA, you may choose not to include it with your
comments. Alternatively, you may request an exemption from FOIA with
your comments submittal. Should you choose the latter, you will be
informed by the Forest Service as to whether or not your request
qualifies for an exemption. If it does not, you will be afforded the
opportunity to resubmit your comments without personal information or
to withhold them.

Early Notice of the Importance of Public Participation in the NEPA
Process

    Following the 30-day scoping period announced in this notice, the
Forest Service will prepare a draft environmental impact statement
(DEIS). Upon completion, the DEIS will be made available for a 45-day
public review and comment period that will begin on the date that the
EPA publishes a Notice of Availability of the DEIS in the Federal
Register. The Forest Service believes that, at this early stage, it is
important to provide the public with notice about several court rulings
related to public participation in the NEPA environmental review
process.
    First, reviewers of a DEIS must structure their participation in
the NEPA review so that it is meaningful and alerts the agency to the
reviewer's position and contentions [Vermont Yankee Nuclear Power Corp.
v. NRDC, 435 U.S. 519, 553 (1978)]. Also environmental objections that
could be raised at the DEIS stage but are not raised until after
completion of the final environmental impact statement (FEIS) may be
waived or dismissed by the courts [City of Angoon v. Hodel, 803 F.2d
1016, 1022 (9th Cir. 1986) and Wisconsin Heritages, Inc. v. Harris, 490
F. Supp. 1334, 1338 (E.D. Wisc. 1980)]. Because of these court rulings,
it is very important that those parties who are interested in this
proposed action participate before the close of a public comment period
so that substantive comments and objections are available to the Forest
Service in a timely manner that will allow them to be meaningfully
considered and subsequently addressed in the FEIS.
    To assist the Forest Service in identifying and considering issues
and concerns about the proposed action, comments on a DEIS should be as
specific as possible. It is also helpful if comments refer to specific
line numbers, pages, and/or chapters of the DEIS. Comments may address
the adequacy of the DEIS or the merits of the alternatives formulated
and

[[Page 43228]]

discussed in it. For comments of this nature, reviewers may choose to
refer to CEQ regulations at 40 CFR 1503.3.
    Comments received, including the names and addresses of those who
comment, will be considered part of the public record of this NEPA
review and will be available for public inspection (Authority: 40 CFR
1501.7 and 1508.22; FSF 1909.15, Section 21).
    Authorization: National Environmental Policy Act of 1969 as amended
(42 U.S.C. 4321-4346); Council on Environmental Quality Regulations (40
CFR parts 1500-1508); U.S. Department of Agriculture NEPA Policies and
Procedures (7 CFR part 1b).

    Dated: July 30, 2007.
Jeanine A. Derby,
Forest Supervisor.
[FR Doc. 07-3812 Filed 8-2-07; 8:45 am]

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