As autumn makes its presence known, crews with the Ancestral Lands Conservation Corps are hard at work in Hart Prairie on the slopes of the San Francisco Peaks, cutting wood as part of the second annual Wood for Life partnership.
The trees are coming down as part of a long-standing project to restore the meadows and riparian areas that had been threatened by growing stands of ponderosa pine and other coniferous trees.
But the work is unique in another way. The Ancestral Lands Conservation Corps, working with the National Forest Foundation, U.S. Forest Service and other groups, is helping to bring much of the wood to tribal communities for use as firewood.
The effort is all to counter the home heating crisis that was created with the closure of the Navajo Generating Station and Kayenta Coal Mine, said Ancestral Lands Conservation Corps director Chas Robles.
“After the Navajo Generating Station closed down, there was a heating crisis that was created in the Hopi Nation and on the Navajo Nation. A lot of community members relied on the coal that they got from the mines to heat their homes,” Robles said. “It was the only source of fuel that folks had to heat their homes to provide warmth in the winter. And when the generating station closed down, they lost that heating source.”
With adequate sources of good firewood few and far between across the Hopi and Navajo Nations, and national forest lands several hours away, Robles said the closures created a real crisis.
Sasha Stortz, Arizona Program Manager for National Forest Foundation, said in the immediate aftermath of the closures, the Coconino and Kaibab National Forests gave out free firewood cutting permits to tribal members, often traveling to chapter houses to do so.
But those forests are still several hours’ drive away and equipment is needed to cut that wood.
For many tribal members, especially elders, Stortz said that solution simply wasn’t feasible. As such, the National Forest Foundation got involved to help fund and coordinate efforts between local organizations and the national forests.
“How could we kind of overcome that transportation barrier and that access barrier and better connect wood from restoration projects with indigenous communities whose ancestral lands were working on?” Stortz said. “And since that project, it's just kind of felt like there's been a lot of snowballing -- a lot of momentum has built.”
More than 300 cords of wood in Hart Prairie will be donated as part of the project this year. Stortz said they estimate the partnership has brought more than 1,600 cords of wood to tribal communities in the last year and a half.
Later this fall, logs from the forest restoration work being done on Bill Williams Mountain will also be brought to Navajo and Hopi communities.
Within the program, logs are either brought to communities where they are then processed and distributed. Or, Robles said, the wood is processed on site before being delivered directly to elders.
“I think where we're sitting today, I don't know that any of us imagined that things would look like this: where the forest is working with partners like NSF and others to think years in advance about what projects can go to supporting the Wood for Life initiative,” Stortz said. “Coconino (and) the National Forest Foundation now have a stewardship agreement specifically about connecting some of these different restoration projects on the Coconino to tribal partners.”
At this point, they now have three years of projects lined up to take part in the initiative, Stortz said.
And Robles said he thinks there is plenty of room to expand the program even further as the years go on.
“There's so many more tribes that could utilize that wood, so many more forests that have an abundance of fuel loads on the forest. So I think there's a lot of opportunity to really support the overall health of our forests, of our public lands, and support the health of our indigenous communities by connecting them with these fuel sources,” Robles said.
Robles added that for Ancestral Lands Conservation Crews, it is nice to see their work helping their own communities.
Like many conservation crews, their work has often involved traveling to national forests and parks off tribal land and well away from the areas they call home.
This project, like much of the work Ancestral Lands has done throughout the pandemic, has given them the opportunity to see the impacts and benefits of their work on their own communities.
Adrian Skabelund can be reached by phone at (928) 556-2261, by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @AdrianSkabelund.