Making forests safe again won't be a walk in the park

  • TAKING A BITE OUT OF FIRE DANGER: Mark Shiery at work in the woods outside Flagstaff

    Matt Jenkins
  • John Gerritsmo, U.S. Forest Service

    Matt Jenkins

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

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Mark Shiery works quickly but methodically with a chainsaw in the ponderosa pine forest on the northwest edge of Flagstaff. He revs his saw to fell small trees and bucks them into two-foot sections.

Then Shiery, the assistant fuels manager for the city fire department, shuts down the saw to talk with the Forest Service’s John Gerritsma. Patches of snow still lie on the ground, but the two men’s conversation turns toward what the coming summer could bring. Flagstaff is surrounded by forests choked with small trees, and areas like Oak Creek Canyon south of town become tinderboxes in dry years.

"It’s a disaster waiting to happen," says Shiery, noting that residents there have only one escape route. "All it’s going to take is one Winnebago stuck on the road (during a fire)."

Shiery’s saw work is meant to keep that disaster from happening. By thinning the overgrown forests on the edge of the city, he’s reducing the risk of catastrophic fires like the one that swept through Los Alamos, N.M., last summer.

If any national forest in the West is poised to tackle the fire problem, it’s the Coconino, which surrounds Flagstaff. The Coconino can draw on the combined resources of the Grand Canyon Forests Partnership, a coalition of government agencies and private groups working since 1998 to restore ecosystem health and reduce fire risk (HCN, 3/1/99). The Flagstaff Fire Department and the Coconino Rural Environmental Corps, a young-adult development program, both have thinning crews that work on the forest. And while thinning projects have always been hindered by a shortage of crews and tight funding, this year the Coconino has $1.25 million for thinning projects from the National Fire Plan.

But even with a chunk of money and more than the average complement of crews, there is no guarantee that the work will get done. "We’ve identified 40,000 acres or so in our urban interface that are at high risk," says Gerritsma, the Forest Service’s liaison to the Grand Canyon Forests Partnership.

This year, the forest wants to thin 5,640 acres, but despite help from other agency crews, the Forest Service is dependent on private contractors to do almost three-fourths of the work. The Southwest’s timber industry, knocked down by years of overcutting and environmental lawsuits, may not be ready for the task. Last year, the Coconino put out several thinning bids and got no takers.

Will private contractors be able to get this year’s thinning work done?

"That’s a damn good question," says Gerritsma.

A saw and a prayer

Thinning tangled, overgrown forests is unglamorous work. Most operators, or "gyppos," run fairly modest operations and often have little more than a few chainsaws, a truck, and a trailer to sleep in. "It’s living like a gypsy," says Dan Cooper, a former firefighter who has also worked as a thinning contractor.

Thinning is also fiscally chancier than traditional logging. Traditional logging contracts are primarily composed of commercially valuable timber. But thinning projects go after mainly small trees with little or no commercial value; while the Forest Service pays the contractors to do much of the work, loggers are still dependent on selling the larger trees to turn a profit. "Before, the contractor would have to come up with the difference to break even," says Gerritsma. "This year, the government is chipping that in."

That’s good news for Allen Ribelin, who runs High Desert Investments in Flagstaff with his brother Kenny. "We think there’s going to be a lot of work available," says Ribelin. "But it’s going to be different. It’s going to be new forestry." With a small fleet of mechanized equipment, nine logging trucks and a Palm Pilot recharging on his desk, Ribelin is a bigger player than the gyppos. But his 26-year old company is also typical of the Southwest’s remaining small lumber operations. The company survived the injunction against logging in national forests in 1995 and 1996 to protect the Mexican spotted owl, by shifting from public land to private, mainly clearing trees from new developments.

"Before, you’d have somebody who’s going to build a house and need six trees removed, and you’re like, ‘Yeah, right,’ " says Ribelin. "Now it’s like, ‘When do you want us there?’ It’s a whole different world for us."

In a market like this, government-subsidized thinning contracts are a godsend for operators like Ribelin. But there’s a hitch: Nobody knows how long they’ll last.

"This is expensive stuff. In many cases it costs more than the value of the resources on the land," says Dave Bunnell, the Forest Service’s National Fire Use Program manager. "I don’t know how we’re going to be able to get people to take this stuff off the land unless we subsidize it."

Bunnell argues that thinning programs can save money because federal funds spent on reducing fuels before fire season are a hedge against the tremendous costs that come with suppressing large wildfires. And, he argues, it’s important to give contractors multi-year contracts so that they’ll make the investments necessary to be available long-term. Already, however, it’s clear that the agency can’t expect Congress to keep funding these projects indefinitely.

The alternative? "We need to make it profitable for contractors," says Bunnell. "We’re counting on that."

Loggers are now scrambling to find commercially profitable ways to utilize smaller wood. The trees High Desert currently cuts are used for firewood or sold to a lumber mill in California. They could also be turned into pallets or into vigas, beams for Southwestern-style homes. But all those markets are small and quickly saturated, and that has forced Ribelin to look for more creative solutions.

"We’re trying to put a proposal together to put a chipping facility in," says Ribelin. With no local markets for woodchips, he has looked at papermills as far away as eastern Texas and Washington, but freight costs are prohibitive. More recently, he’s met with Arizona Public Service, the local power provider, about the possibility of using woodchips for fuel in a "diversified power generation" project.

Another option is convincing someone to build a plant to make oriented strand board (OSB) for home construction. "If you look at the area we’re in, you’ve got Phoenix, Tucson, Las Vegas, Albuquerque, some of the largest-growth areas in the country, and you’re in this wood basket here. And OSB is a product that’s made from small trees. It’s a perfect fit," says Ribelin. "But the plants are fairly expensive — $75 million — and there’s no guaranteed supply."

No guarantees

After bitter legal battles with environmentalists in the ’90s, the Forest Service is unlikely to guarantee timber supplies again. "Once you write a guarantee," says Ribelin, "it gives the impression that you’re managing for industry, not science."

Santa Fe-based Forest Guardians, one of the most outspoken opponents of logging in the Southwest, maintains that the Forest Service already has the money for the thinning work. "We’ve spent billions and billions for decades subsidizing the timber companies to destroy the nation’s forests," says Guardians spokesman John Horning. "I think it’s only fair to refocus those subsidies on restoring the forests."

He’s concerned that commercial incentives could resurrect a large-scale timber industry that had a stake driven through its heart in the mid-’90s: "We don’t want to provide the timber industry with another reason to crank up the chainsaws."

The Forest Service’s Gerritsma is grateful for this year’s opportunity to get the program going, but the twin questions of continued funding and market sustainability leave him worried about ever getting the job done right.

"I’m just afraid that if we squander this opportunity, we may not get another chance," he says. "Either the forests will all burn down or a good portion of them will and we’ll all just be standing around, saying ‘Well, we tried.’ That would be a sad day."

Matt Jenkins is a High Country News intern.

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