Is there a market for tiny trees?


Note: This article is a sidebar to this issue's feature story.

Flagstaff isn't the first place to try its hand at manipulating forests. One southwestern Colorado county has already learned some hard lessons about restoration's bottom line.

Like the forests around Flagstaff, the ponderosa pine forests in Montezuma County, Colo., show the effects of fire suppression, logging and overgrazing. The Forest Service wanted to restore these forests, and the county hoped to revive a struggling local timber industry by finding a market for small-diameter trees (HCN, 5/13/96). A collaboration among county officials, the Forest Service and Fort Lewis College researchers led to a pilot plan for about 500 acres of Forest Service land.

Like the Flagstaff group, the Ponderosa Pine Forest Partnership "tried to do the right thing ecologically, and let the chips - so to speak - fall where they may," says Dennis Lynch, a Colorado State University professor who advised the project.

After thinning and burning the study area, however, the group had truckloads of timber with nowhere to go. Bigger trees were easy; they were sold as sawlogs and sent to a nearby mill. Other timber was sent to a local producer of excelsior (a paper-like packing material), who unsuccessfully experimented with the small pines. But more than half the wood travelled about 100 miles north - to the Louisiana-Pacific waferboard plant in Olathe, Colo.

It wasn't the local business the Montezuma group had envisioned, but L-P's purchases enabled the project to turn a profit on three of its five study plots. "That plant makes the difference in doing good forest restoration and not doing it at all," says Lynch. "If we couldn't put wood into that plant, it would just be stacked up on the road."

Although researchers are still gathering data on the ecological success of the restoration, Bill Romme, a Fort Lewis College professor, believes the prescribed burning "accomplished its goal" of thinning the forests and encouraging the growth of grass.

But the forests of northern Arizona tend to grow denser, with smaller trees, than those of southwestern Colorado, and Lynch says the much larger Flagstaff project may have trouble getting rid of its timber, even if it's willing to sell the trees outside the local community. "If they're confronted with a lot more of the small-diameter logs than we were, they've really got a problem," he says.

Despite the difficulties, Lynch still supports the idea of "doing the right thing ecologically," and says the Flagstaff partnership may have one major advantage over the Colorado experiment. Private foundations have begun to take an interest in restoration forestry, and the Flagstaff group has put together a sizable nest egg, giving it more time to find local buyers for the small logs. It may be just the push these projects need, says Lynch. "They've got some money to work with," he says. "We're poor folks."

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