The announcement last month that the Forest Service would be ramping up manpower and money on the region’s Four Forest Restoration Initiative was perhaps most anticipated and most desperately needed in an area far from Flagstaff.
Loggers, mills and wood products businesses on the eastern portion of the project’s footprint are teetering on the edge of survival, according to a Feb. 17 letter sent to U.S. Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell.
The letter stated that 90 percent of the log utilization industry in the White Mountains has had to temporarily shut down due to a lack of wood supply. The cause, the letter said, was inadequate acreage being made available by the Forest Service in the form of thinning contracts in the area.
“The ramp up effort could not be more timely,” said the document, which was signed by supervisors of Gila, Greenlee, Navajo, Apache and Graham counties. “This situation threatens the very survival of the (White Mountains) industry.”
Since then, the situation has improved only marginally.
For its part, the Forest Service said it has heard the operators on the state’s east side loud and clear.
In an exchange with Sen. Jeff Flake during a senate committee hearing earlier this month, Tidwell outlined various ways the agency hopes to boost 4FRI’s east side, including dedicating more staff to preparing thinning contracts and working through necessarily environmental analyses as well as creating larger contracts that will provide several years of wood supply.
“If we can get a few of those going on the east side then I think you and I would be having a different discussion,” Tidwell told Flake.
At the same time however, the situation is more complicated than one where supply simply needs to be increased to meet demand.
Not all timber sales and stewardship contracts the Forest Service offers are located exactly where purchasers would like or consist of the particular mix of material most profitable to them, and that’s because 4FRI must accomplish certain restoration objectives, 4FRI Spokesperson Brienne Pettit wrote in an email. The Forest Service’s challenge is to balance those forest health goals with the economic viability its offerings, she wrote.
“All of us – Forest Service and industry alike – must make changes to the way we approach restoration,” Pettit wrote.
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The Feb. 17 letter to Tidwell was based on a meeting the week before of industry, local government and Forest Service representatives where wood products companies outlined a grim picture. The Novo Star sawmill in Snowflake was shut down for six weeks and 40 percent of the staff laid off. Both of the Reidhead Bros. Lumber Mills in Eager and Nutrioso were closed. Show Low-based wood pellet company Forest Energy went through two layoffs and had no current production. The list went on.
“These guys are past survival mode, these guys are literally in dying mode,” said Pascal Berlioux, executive director of the Eastern Arizona Counties Organization.
The letter also lays out 16 potential solutions for the Forest Service to consider, including one to reevaluate biomass removal requirements in some contracts and another to offer east side acreage to local contractors instead of Good Earth Power AZ. Good Earth holds the largest 4FRI contract but so far has thinned only 12 percent of the acres it has been awarded. The industry in the White Mountains on the other hand has implemented approximately 55 percent of all 4FRI mechanical treatments in fiscal year 2015, according to Forest Service figures.
Most urgently, the letter requested that the Forest Service immediately prepare and offer 4,000 acres in thinning contracts on the Tonto and Apache-Sitgreaves national forests in order to “justify the re-hiring and restart of the processing plants.” After that, the letter said the industry needs 15,000 acres per year minimum in thinning contracts to keep their doors open, based on historical production. For comparison, in fiscal year 2015, about 7,500 acres on the Apache-Sitgreaves were offered as thinning contracts.
If that acceleration doesn’t happen starting now, Berlioux said, by the time the Forest Service has completed its second 4FRI environmental analysis and thinning plan “we won’t have second industry to implement it.”
It’s not an issue of needing to be paid to complete the forest thinning contracts, said Steve Reidhead, president of Tri-Star Logging and a partner in the Novo Star saw mill. Companies have figured out how to make the economics work, they simply need a more secure supply of wood, agreed Brad Worsley, CEO of the biomass plant Novo Power and partner in the Novo Star mill. Larger contracts of 15,000 acres instead of 1,500 would be one way to do that, Berlioux said. A variety of offerings with different types of trees and in different places that experience different weather and moisture conditions also would make the situation more economically viable for loggers, Worsley said.
SLOW MOVING DISASTER
The situation facing White Mountain’s timber industry is one the Forest Service should have seen coming, Worsley said. It started with the 2011 Wallow Fire that wiped out 50,000 to 60,000 acres of timber that had been cleared for timber offerings, Berlioux said. Then, the focus and resources of the Four Forest Restoration Initiative turned to the west side of the project near Flagstaff and Williams in order to push out a massive, 1-million acre environmental analysis, released last year, Berlioux said.
The Forest Service concentrated on the west side first in order to spur much-needed investments in equipment and infrastructure so that timber harvested in the area could be processed, Roberta Buskirk, director of acquisition management with the Forest Service, wrote in an email last fall.
But while that happened, loggers on the east side were thinning acres faster than they were being readied by the Forest Service, Berlioux said.
Since the letter was sent, the situation of a few businesses in the White Mountains has improved slightly, but that’s due to timber coming from the White Mountain Apache Reservation, not the national forest, Berlioux said.