Critics: Delays in timber thinning hurt commerce

Ryan Randazzo
The Republic |
Novo BioPower Plant President Brad Worsley stands on wood chips at his plant near Snowflake. The chips are burned to produce electricity.
  • Businesses that rely on timber say they don't get enough access to Arizona forests.
  • Several businesses such as sawmills designed for small trees can help thin overgrown, fire-prone forests.
  • Most of the Forest Service resources have been put into a large restoration initiative that is behind schedule.

Northern Arizona business owners say permitting delays by the U.S. Forest Service mean the state is missing out on economic opportunity from logging and other industries that can help prevent wildfires.

Businesses are concerned that the Forest Service is not moving fast enough to approve permits to thin forests before they burn.

In August, a sawmill in Eagar closed because it did not have access to enough timber. And last spring, a wood-pellet company in Show Low closed for a day for the first time in more than 20 years because it didn't have enough wood.

Business owners also say the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, or 4FRI, a large-scale program to prevent wildfires, which can cripple small-town economies, has failed to thin much of the overgrown forest.

Forest Service officials said that they are working as quickly as possible to conduct the required reviews before offering up timber sales or contracts for companies to cut trees but that the massive scale of the job has overwhelmed their staff.

Businesses say they can help. For example, a biomass power plant opened near Snowflake in 2008 hoping to prevent wildfires by burning scrap wood from thinning projects. But today, the plant doesn't get enough access to pine forests and must get fuel from other sources.

"If I had to rely wholly on the U.S. Forest Service for wood, I'd be dead," said Brad Worsley, president of the Novo BioPower Plant.

The plant employs about 40 people in Snowflake, a town of about 5,600. The jobs are especially important because the town lost more than 300 jobs in 2012 when a paper mill closed.

The power plant is relying partly on piñon and juniper logging on private land and is burning green yard waste trucked from the Phoenix area, neither of which prevents fire hazards as the owners intended.

The plant gets only about half of its fuel from pine branches and saplings brought to it by Tri Star Logging Inc. of Snowflake from thinning projects and timber sales on nearby forests. The wood is chipped and burned in the power plant to make electricity.

With more access to the overcrowded forests, the plant would be able to send more crews in to thin the trees.

The plant can piggyback on projects cutting trees for lumber. Nearly 40 percent of each pine tree cut for wood is waste limbs and needles, Worsley said. It is cheaper for the power plant to pay for this waste than to pay contractors to harvest wood for the plant alone.

"What has been delayed by 4FRI is the establishment of a healthy round-wood (log) market," Worsley said. "If we had that, it would improve the economics of our facility."

Agreement on thinning

Most businesses, the Forest Service and environmentalists agree that the forests are out of balance, with far too many trees growing too close together and in need of thinning.

In 2009, environmentalists, local governments and other stakeholders rallied behind 4FRI in hopes of restoring 2.4 million acres on portions of the Apache-Sitgreaves, Coconino, Kaibab and Tonto national forests.

The plan will use logging as well as prescribed burns to reduce fire threats.

Unlike clear-cutting practices in other parts of the country, most projects in Arizona leave a small number of trees per acre to restore the forest to the way it looked before settlers arrived in the area.

Worker Brent Norwood clears wood chips at the Novo BioPower Plant. Worsley said if the plant had to rely on material approved by the U.S. Forest Service, it would have to shut.

Arizona's forests traditionally grew with large trees spread apart, separated by tall grass. But, in the past 100 years, cattle grazing between the trees reduced the number of small grass fires that would regularly kill off most pine saplings. Fighting fires has allowed saplings to grow into dense thickets, where fires burn into the crowns of trees. Logging traditionally focused on the largest trees, exacerbating the problem.

Before such developments, small natural fires burned through the forests every few years or so. Now, some areas have not burned in 100 years, and they have built up fuel that will result in catastrophic fires when lightning or careless campers eventually spark a blaze.

The latest example is the Wallow Fire in 2011 that burned more than 538,000 acres, setting the state record. But areas that have been thinned have been shown to prevent catastrophic fires.

The 4FRI aims to thin about 50,000 acres of forest per year, compared with about 20,000 today that are treated annually through thinning and prescribed fires. But so far, it has not dramatically increased the amount of thinning.

Dick Fleishman, Forest Service team leader for 4FRI, said the amount of land the agency is trying to prepare for thinning is unprecedented. Before it's logged, each acre needs to be surveyed for wildlife, threatened or endangered species, and effects on the watershed.

That takes time, he said, so the Forest Service has been moving workers from one forest to another to speed things up and get people where they have the heaviest workload.

"It's not like we're not doing anything," Fleishman said. "We have about 19 different (timber) sales that are outside of 4FRI, and we have a large contract in place."

"It takes time to get this stuff out," Fleishman added. "A lot of people think 4FRI is just cutting trees, but it is a total restoration package to restore the pattern and composition of the forest. There is channel restoration to get water flowing properly."

He said the Forest Service is working on priority areas, such as watersheds that provide drinking water for communities, not where logging companies most want to operate.

"Restoration is driving what we need to get done," he said. "It's not tree sales driving it."

Businesses offer help

Businesses have come to Arizona in hopes of profiting from fire prevention and forest thinning.

Vaagen Brothers Lumber Inc. opened a sawmill in Eagar in 2012, specializing in trees smaller than 13.5 inches in diameter, the type of small lumber Arizona has in overabundance.

"We thought we would get 4FRI logs as well as regular timber sales on the Apache-Sitgreaves National (Forests)," owner Kurtis Vaagen said. "It never happened. They just stopped putting up sales."

With no wood, the 18 employees were relocated in August to other mills the company runs in the Pacific Northwest, officials said.

"Arizona will inevitably burn up if they don't actively manage the forests, and fast," Vaagen said. "I think that without people like ourselves, they are digging their own grave."

Rob Davis tells a similar story of a lack of access to wood. He runs the Forest Energy Corp. in Show Low, which relies on forest-thinning projects to make pellets for wood-burning stoves.

"We normally would like to know where our wood is coming from two to three years out so we can plan," Davis said. "Now, we are just a month or two out, and we ran out in the spring. It is not normally the way you would operate a business."

For the first time since the plant opened in 1992, it had to shut for a day this spring because it didn't have material from the forest, putting 34 plant workers, about 30 forest workers and four delivery drivers out of work.

"It is just difficult to tell employees we don't know if you will have a job tomorrow," he said. "We don't know if we will have wood or not."

Behind schedule

One reason timber companies in eastern Arizona have not had enough access to lumber is because the Forest Service has focused on opening land on the western side of the state for the 4FRI, but the two companies contracted for that thinning fell far behind schedule despite having access to the forest.

The first, Pioneer Forest Products, won a Forest Service contract in 2012 to treat 300,000 acres in 10 years, but it got the work done on only about 1,000.

So, last year, the Forest Service allowed Pioneer to transfer the contract to Good Earth Power AZ, a subsidiary of an Omani company. Good Earth hoped to make biofuel from trees. But thinning has been slow under that company, as well, and the biofuel plans apparently were scrapped. As of late October, Good Earth reported that about 2,700 acres had been treated.

Good Earth did not have the trucks and other infrastructure in place to begin working on a large scale immediately, and it has spent the past year ramping up its operations, company officials said in a recent news release.

A public-relations agency working for the company in Phoenix, ED/c Partners, said that Good Earth plans to increase the amount of forest thinning.

Good Earth bought the Lumberjack Mill in Heber in January. It employs 25 workers, and the company said it will increase production. ED/c Partners declined to say what other mills might be planned to handle the company's large contract.

Fleishman defended the Forest Service contract with Good Earth. He said it will take time for any company to ramp up operations. "They've done a little bit," he said. "We're getting them up and in place. We would like it to be faster, but you know, you don't create industry out of nothing."

Davis, of Forest Energy in Show Low, said the Forest Service used all its resources to prepare land in the western forests for the 4FRI contract, leaving companies in the eastern forests, such as his, without enough access to wood.

"On the Flagstaff side, they have tens of thousands of acres and no capacity (to thin it)," he said. "We hope some of the funding to prepare those acres will come to the Apache-Sitgreaves."

There is one other reason the businesses on the eastern side of the state don't have enough acreage available to them, and it cuts directly to the business owners' concerns: The Forest Service years ago had approved more than 50,000 acres for treatment in the east, but before timber companies could start to work on it, those trees burned in the Wallow Fire.


Ryan Randazzo covers energy, mining and defense.

How to reach him

Phone: 602-444-4331

Twitter: @utilityreporter

Read Part I on azcentral

Miles of trees to go: An ambitious 5-year plan to thin northern Arizona forests and reduce fire danger is almost done, but portions are way behind schedule.