Talk about your irony.
A century of fire suppression, logging and Forest Service management created an unhealthy, tree-choked, edge of catastrophe forest.
Now only a reinvented timber industry and Forest Service management can save it.
That message emerged on Tuesday from a talk about forest economics by an Northern Arizona University expert before about 30 community leaders gathered at the Business Buzz luncheon hosted by the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce.
“That really big, catastrophic fire is coming, we just don’t know when,” said Lucy Murfitt, director of collaboration at NAU’s Ecological Institute.
She said the only affordable solution to the condition of the forest lies in offering private business long-term contracts providing the incentive to build power plants run by brush and saplings and modern mills that can produce logs and wood products from processing small trees.
Only such a reinvention of forest industries can make it affordable to thin vast expanses of unhealthy, fire-prone Rim Country forests. Such contracts could cut the $1,000-per-acre cost of hand-thinning by perhaps two-thirds, said Murfitt, a former legislative aide to Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Arizona) and now working with a forest research institute.
The danger remains acute, she said.
In past decade or so, the number of fires nationally has tripled and Forest Service spending to fight them has grown from $400 million to $1.8 billion.
That dramatic rise in fires stems from both a decade-long drought and a century of logging, grazing, fire suppression and management decisions that have increased tree densities tenfold.
Millions of acres have gone from “an open, park-like forest to those dense thickets, setting up the ladder fuels that produce big forest fires,” said Murfitt.
She offered a series of slides taken of a single spot in an experimental forest in Southern Utah, which last had a natural fire in 1876. Prior to that time, the forest burned every two to four years. But everything changed after loggers cut the big trees, cattle gobbled the grass that once carried ground fires and the Forest Service suppressed fires.
The experimental forest had 23 trees per acre in 1876. Those densities increased to 1,170 several years ago. At that time, researchers at NAU did a “restoration” treatment and reduced tree densities to about 60 trees per acre.
The resulting forest has grassy areas, big, fire-resistant trees and a greater diversity of habitats, which benefits wildlife, said Murfitt. Even so, it still harbors three times as many trees as the “pre-settlement” forest.
“In many cases, it is impossible — or undesirable, to restore pre-settlement conditions,” she said.
The NAU institute had played a leading role in pushing for the use of a revived timber industry to dramatically reduce tree densities across millions of acres. Timber industry advocates seized on NAU Professor Wally Covington’s attempt to estimate pre-logging tree densities to argue for a dramatic increase in tree harvesting.
Many forest advocates have balked at some of his conclusions, arguing that any timber sales or treatments should leave most of the surviving ponderosa pines larger than 16 inches in diameter. Those trees provide the most profit in any logging operation, but estimates suggest that only about 30,000 to 40,000 such large, fire-resistant trees remain in the 2.4 million acres of forests in the region that runs from the Grand Canyon to the New Mexico boarder.
Murfitt’s talk on Tuesday focused on the economics of a timber industry that could thin the forest, improve forest health — and still make a profit on the thickets of small trees.
She said the consensus of foresters, loggers and environmental advocates working on a regional Healthy Forests project agreed the region could produce 850 million board feet from overcrowded trees, plus 8 million tons of branches and green matter that could be burned in an energy producing power plant.
That should provide more than enough wood for the next 20 years for wood-burning power plants, mills that produce pellets for use in fireplaces and elsewhere and mills that could make pressed “roundwood” logs and a “oriented strand board,” a high-tech way of turning shredded wood into high value lumber.
She cited as an example the current White Mountain Stewardship contract involving the Forest Service and several mills and biofuels plants in the White Mountains. The Forest Service guaranteed annual supply of wood, with the current 5,000 acre-per-year cut increasing eventually to 15,000 annually.
The Forest Service has ended up paying about $500 per acre to accomplish that annual thinning — about half the cost of hand-thinning. However, $500 per acre could still break the bank if applied to the millions of acres considered unhealthy and prone to fires.
Murfitt estimated that using the timber industry to thin the roughly 1 million acres in the region on which the participants in the Healthy Forests study agreed would produce 13,000 jobs and products worth $1.1 billion. That doesn’t include the benefit of averting catastrophic fires, which would destroy billions in property and sterilize soils, dramatically increase erosion and harm wildlife, she said.
Murfitt said such a revitalized forest industry could benefit a town like Payson, which sits on the edge of the world’s largest ponderosa pine forest.
The key lies in creating a cluster of businesses, like a biofuel plant and fuel pellet plant to make use of the brush and saplings, a roundwood or oriented strand mill to take advantage of the smaller trees and a more conventional mill to utilize the mid-sized trees.
Such an operation would require millions of dollars in start-up costs. In addition, such mills can use a lot of water — which remains precious in Rim Country.