Forest Slow To Recover Since Rodeo-Chediski

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Winding through the forest just south of here, National Forest Road 51 tells a tale of devastation and recovery.

There are large stumps, reminders of burned trees that have been hauled off to mills. Piles of wood chips await transport to a plant that will burn them for energy. Plastic cylinders dot an otherwise barren landscape, protecting ponderosa pine seedlings planted about 20 feet apart.

Five years after the Rodeo-Chediski fire raged across nearly a half million acres in eastern Arizona, destroying hundreds of homes, the scene along this road illustrates elements that are key to the U.S. Forest Service's long-term plan for burned areas of the Sitgreaves National Forest: removing what burned from selected areas, planting anew and letting nature handle the rest.

What was lost in a matter of days in Arizona's largest wildfire will take more than 100 years to replace, and the forest won't ever look like it once did, according to Gayle Richardson, a forest management specialist at the Black Mesa Ranger District in Overgaard.

The large tree stumps along National Forest Road 51 are a reminder of salvage logging, one of the earliest projects undertaken by the Forest Service after the fire. Following a series of legal challenges by environmental groups, the Forest Service began salvage logging in July 2003 and finished earlier this year. Time was of the essence, officials said, because the value of lumber from dead trees diminishes over time.

The salvage logging was spaced to create open areas that would help contain future fires and prevent fires from reaching nearby towns.

After salvage logging is completed in a particular zone, smaller trees and branches that can't be used for lumber remain. That's where Scott Higginson comes in.

Higginson is the vice president of NZ Legacy, a Mesa-based company that owns the biomass energy plant outside Snowflake. Biomass energy comes from burning substances such as wood chips, sawdust and paper.

A two-man crew turns the remaining trees and branches into large piles of wood chips. The chips are piled on the side of the road and eventually taken to the biomass plant, slated to open in early 2008.

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