Forest Thinning Could Yield Big Job Bonanza

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Thinning 1.7 million acres of overgrown Arizona forests could cost the federal government an eye-popping $1 billion — but would generate $1.3 billion in economic activity and produce nearly 15,000 jobs, according to an analysis by researchers from Northern Arizona University.

Those benefits don’t include additional jobs created by selling the wood to sawmills and power plants. A 2007 study concluded a small-tree sawmill in Winslow will produce 1,000 jobs and $244 million in economic benefits annually. Selling the wood to sawmills could largely cover the $1 billion cost of thinning, the report concluded.

The $1.3 billion in projected economic benefits also doesn’t include the payoff that comes from reducing wildfire risk and a restoring forest health. Some studies have put that benefit at between $600 and $1,400 per acre — or about $1 billion for the region.

For instance, the 500,000-acre Rodeo-Chediski Fire in 2002 inflicted some $300 million in direct and indirect costs, according to a study published by the Western Forestry Leadership Coalition.

Add that all up, and $1 billion spent thinning the region’s forests could boost the job base by 10 percent and yield maybe $3 billion in direct and indirect economic benefits if it spawns a new network of small-log mills, according to recent studies.

The most recent study by the Ecological Restoration Institute at NAU focused mostly on the potential direct economic impact of the thinning projects themselves.

Ecological Economist Yeon-Su Kim concluded “it will take a significant financial investment to make our Southwest forests healthy: However, this investment will also serve as an economic stimulus to rural communities.”

The NAU study attempts to estimate the possible benefit of the 4-Forests Initiative, a groundbreaking agreement between environmentalists, researchers and timber industry representatives to thin badly overgrown ponderosa pine forests.

The number of trees per acre has grown from an average of perhaps 50 to 1,000 across some 2.4 million acres in the Kaibab, Coconino, Apache-Sitgreaves and Tonto national forests.

A century of grazing, logging and fire suppression has now dramatically increased the risk of catastrophic wildfires and all but shut down a timber industry that once depended mostly on big ponderosa pines.

The unusual coalition of conservationists and timber industry representatives agreed on the need to thin forests by leaving most trees bigger than 16 inches in diameter but removing most of the rest.

The whole group agreed on the need to thin about 1 million acres, with a majority reaching agreement on an additional 700,000 acres.

Kim based his estimates on the roughly 1.7 million acres the majority of the group wanted to thin to an average of perhaps 50 trees per acre, with a wildlife-friendly mix of tree clumps, open areas and grassy swales.

The 1.7 million acres that need thinning include 153,000 acres in the Payson and Young Ranger Districts of the Tonto National Forest. Those areas close to Payson would also account for $72 million of the $1 billion cost.

The NAU study pulled together a host of previous studies on the costs and benefits of such thinning projects.

It costs about $185 per acre to prepare and conduct a controlled burn and about $300 per acre to undertake hand thinning. Administrative and study costs add more than $100 per acre. On average, it costs $552 per acre with all costs included, Kim estimated.

The study says the four national forests have completed the necessary environmental studies to thin about 1 million acres, which would cost $214 million to treat. That cost assumes no timber mills exist that could use the wood harvested. Just the thinning work would produce between 14 and 16 jobs for each $1 million spent. The number of jobs created would increase significantly if new mills developed to use the wood.

The roughly 15,000 jobs created by thinning 1.7 million acres would have a pronounced impact on rural economies plagued by rates of unemployment and poverty. The area includes Gila, Coconino, Greenlee, Navajo and Apache counties. Those five counties have an output of $19 billion and employ 155,000 people — which means large-scale thinning could boost the job base by some 10 percent.

Gila County had 52,000 residents in 2008, 18 percent of them living below the poverty line. The unemployment rate in 2009 was 10.4 percent. That was much higher than the state’s 8.7 percent unemployment rate, but much better than the 14 percent to 16 percent rates in Apache, Navajo and Greenlee counties.

Every federal dollar spent on thinning would generate at least another $2 in economic benefits, Kim concluded — leaving aside the benefit of reducing fire risks and the possible added jobs created by a small-tree timber industry.

“Rural areas with a high level of natural amenities and recreation opportunities experienced higher income growth and more economic opportunities than their low-amenity counterparts, although the economic gains are offset by higher local cost of living. Thus, ecological restoration is a sound economic development strategy because it improves the quality of natural environment and provides increased and more diverse employment opportunities,” Kim concluded.

Numerous studies show that people prefer such thinned forests dominated by large trees, once the area has recovered from the impact of the treatment. Moreover, thinning would likely result in a substantial increase in stream flows throughout the region.

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