How do you turn hundreds of thousands of acres of smallish trees into a profitable product?
If you’re the Campbell Group, contractors for the Four Forests Restoration Initiative, you do it the old-fashioned way: Convert timber into lumber. Company officials say they will forgo more costly biofuel efforts for now as they prepare to thin 300,000 acres of northern Arizona forests.
But the company faces a challenge even larger than the small trees. The logging industry has all but vanished from this region of the country. To thin that many acres, they’ll need drastically more loggers, trucks and mills.
At a forum hosted in Flagstaff by Arizona Forward last week, Campbell Group area head Steve Horner said that the 4FRI contract would not be a big deal to complete if it were located elsewhere.
“What we’re facing here in the region is the loss of those resources,” Horner said. “Even if we were to put all those resources on our contract, it would only cover about 30 percent of the work that needs to get done.”
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It’s been one year since Oman-based Good Earth Power was awarded the nation’s largest U.S. Forest Service stewardship contract in history, following a false start and much controversy surrounding the initial contractors. The company subcontracted the work to the Campbell Group, a logging company active in the Pacific Northwest, Australia and elsewhere.
And so far, the work is progressing very slowly. The contractors have cut only a few thousand acres versus the 40,000 acres initially projected for this year as well as last year.
Horner says that the first order of business for his company is to try to identify and mobilize timber harvesting resources. Horner said the company will need an estimated 300 logging trucks a day to move millions of tons of materials off the forest, and those resources aren’t going to appear with just a snap of the fingers. One of the things being considered is ramping up education and training at the community college level to help build a skilled labor force to tackle the timber.
“We’ve been hired to hire loggers, hire trucks, move the wood to the distributors (that) Good Earth Power is setting up and telling us where to move the wood,” Horner said.
He later added, “In the end, it’s not going to be too revolutionary.”
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If all the forest lands in the Campbell Group’s contract are approved, they’ll have some 300,000 acres to thin. The environmental impact statement on that is due out in September and will be the largest of its kind in Forest Service history.
But 4FRI’s long-term goal is to treat a much larger chunk of wildfire-prone forest stretching from the Grand Canyon to New Mexico before it burns. Of the total 2.4 million-acre target treatment area, the Forest Service hopes to restore about 1 million acres within the next 20 years. And within that area, there’s an average of 400 to 1,000 trees in every acre, according to Dick Fleishman, who heads the 4FRI project for the U.S. Forest Service.
The historical norm on the 4FRI project land, which is slightly bigger than Yellowstone National Park, is thought to be more like 20 to 100 ponderosa pines per acre. That means there are some four to 50 times more fuels than normal packed into any given acre of forest. Legal requirements and protections for creatures like the Mexican spotted owl keep them from being able to thin back to natural levels, but where they can, the Forest Service does intend to try to come close.
“We’re looking to create grassy openings, which will increase our diversity,” Fleishman said.
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Despite the huge number of pines to be removed, those trees are worth very little.
Nonetheless, the biggest money generator will still be old-fashioned lumber. Horner said that the Campbell Group intends to leverage its proximity to large communities like Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Phoenix, New Mexico and even cities south of the border.
“It’s a well-situated wood supply to be close to a lot of metropolises, so this is keeping us optimistic,” he said.
Another factor working in their favor is that pine has kept its value, while other woods have declined in price, he said.
He said that the company’s bread and butter will be making that lumber out of trees between 13 and 16 inches in diameter. Just how many two-by-fours can you pull out of such a small tree? A Phoenix-based public relations firm answering Daily Sun questions for the Campbell Group said it was impossible to tell. Few trees are “ideal” and many have variables like knots, shape and condition.
As they ramp up, the contractors have purchased the Lumberjack Sawmill in Heber, with plans to build a much larger processing facility somewhere in the region.
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On the even smaller end, the Novo Biomass plant in Snowflake will get the brush and very young trees. There, the wood will be burned and turned into electricity. The power plant operators contend that their biofuels are cleaner than fossil fuels because the carbon dioxide they release is offset by what the plants absorb during their lifetime. The company also makes the case that its plant filters the burnt trees, removing nitrogen oxides, unlike what would happen if the trees burned in a wildfire.
Other products will include landscaping mulch and composting. It is not looking at oriented strand board, or OSB, as had been discussed in the past with 4FRI.
The plan also contrasts with the reason Good Earth Power took an interest in northern Arizona’s forests. The company specializes in biofuels and got word of a virtually endless supply of organic material. The problem is that the technology doesn’t exist to make that practical.
“New technology takes time; we can’t afford to wait for that,” Horner said.
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Part of the push comes from local officials eager to get thick stands of forests cleared before they go up in flames. One of those officials is Coconino County Supervisor Mandy Metzger. Part of her district is within the Schultz flood area.
At the Arizona Forward forum last week, she said that the Schultz fire and recent Slide fire show the perils of inaction. Since 2010, some 50 floods have hit downstream from Schultz and damaged some 85 homes, according to Metzger. One of those floods killed a 12-year -old girl.
Those floods have already cost Coconino County and other government agencies about $25 million to date. And from an environmental standpoint, Arizona Forward leaders said they had decided to host the forum because loss of forests means loss of water supply. One of the partners in Arizona Forward is the Salt River Project, which provides water to much of the state.
“Our forests are the sponges that absorb precipitation and deliver it to our communities at a pace that we can use it,” said forum moderator and Northern Arizona University Professor of Environmental Science and Policy Tom Sisk. “Without healthy forests, we see dysfunctional water systems.”
He said that forests will increasingly become an issue by 2050, as climatologists have placed a “bullseye” over Arizona for declining precipitation.
“We are at a tipping point where minor developments may bring about significant and rapid changes,” Sisk said.
Eric Betz can be reached at email@example.com or 556-2250.