Economics Set Limit On Tree-Thinning Plan

Salvaging millions of fire-killed trees will likely overwhelm limited capacity of mills and power plants

Wallow Fire

Wallow Fire

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The debate about salvaging millions of board feet of lumber left behind by the state’s largest wildfire has illuminated the challenging economics of the plan to use a revived timber industry to protect Rim Country from catastrophic wildfires.

“We’ve flooded the market already,” said Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests timber manager Ray Rugg of the demand for wood from burned trees cut down along nearly 200 miles of roads in the area burned by the Wallow Fire last summer.

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The largest fire in state history put the long-suffering debate about using the timber industry to thin the forest on the front burner statewide, especially when combined with the devastation wrought by the Schultz Fire near Flagstaff, followed by damaging mudslides.

The U.S. Forest Service is rushing now to award a 10-year contract to thin 300,000 acres of dangerously overgrown forests, including at least 2,000 acres in Rim Country along the Control Road. The backers of the 4-Forests Restoration Initiative (4-FRI) hope that the lure of a 10-year contract and the offer of more than a million acres of thickly overgrown forest will convince timber companies to invest millions in mills and biofuel plants needed to make use of all that wood. If they succeed, the sale of the wood will cover the cost of the thinning project — providing free fire protection and a rejuvenated forest ecology.

That’s the theory.

But the long struggle in the White Mountains of Forest Service officials and loggers to accomplish the same feat offers a cautionary tale in the economics of forest thinning. Despite the development of mills that could handle the small trees, the timber companies needed a roughly $800-per-acre subsidy to make the thinning work pencil out, which prompted the Forest Service to limit the area thinned.

Now with a frightening fire season looming in the wake of a dry winter, the issue looms large.

Rim Country remains one of the most fire-menaced regions in the country as wildfires reach record intensity as a result of a century of fire suppression and a decade of drought. Since the 1970s, the number of fires has increased six-fold in the western U.S., with the annual cost of fighting them rising to $1.5 billion.

After the 538,000-acre Wallow Fire, forest managers moved quickly to hire contractors to open roads by cutting about 1,300 acres along a network of dirt roads — so they could re-open the forest.

Even that tiny salvage project yielded 10 million board feet of timber, providing as much wood as the local small-diameter wood mills and biofuel power plants could absorb.

That limited capacity for small-tree wood products took years to develop as a result of the efforts of the sputtering White Mountain Stewardship Project. That project has paid timber companies about $1,000 per acre to thin about 5,000 acres annually, reducing the cost by selling the wood to biofuel and particle board plants in the area. That project has so far thinned some 50,000 acres, which created buffer zones that saved Alpine and Greer from the Wallow Fire last summer.

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Contract workers clear brush on the outskirts of Payson in an effort to create a buffer zone to slow wildfires sufficiently for firefighters to keep them away from town.

However, the Forest Service has never ramped up operations to the promised 15,000 acres annually, mostly because it can’t afford to provide the subsidy. That struggle has cast a shadow across a much more ambitious effort to revive the timber industry in Rim Country and elsewhere to thin millions of acres at no cost to taxpayers.

The White Mountain network of wood-processing operations absorbed the initial, small salvage operations this fall, but can’t come close to absorbing the millions of dead trees that will become commercially all but useless by next summer, when chemical processes in the wood give it a blue cast that reduces its value.

Rugg estimated that the fire will end up killing half the trees in the 538,000 acres, 30 percent immediately and 20 percent over time.

“We benefited from having the contractors — the Snowflake biomass power plant and the wood pellet plant in Show Low,” said Rugg. “But because of the economy, that has limited the market for wood products, we’ve flooded the market already just on the roadside salvage.

The number of dead trees left behind by the crown fire that raced through forests crowded with 500 to 2,000 trees per acre staggers the mind.

“Before the fire, we had maybe 15 tons of dead wood on the ground per acre. After the fire, we’re running 40 to 75 tons per acre.”

On the surface, people would assume that at least the fire reduced the risk of future fires.

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The Forest Service has used hand thinning and controlled burns to create buffer zones, but costs can run to more than $800 an acre.

But not necessarily, said Rugg.

If crews can’t salvage some of that downed wood or do controlled burns at cool, moist times of the year, the tangles of fallen trees can still carry a new fire, which could burn so hot it would sterilize the soil and cause major new problems.

“If another fire goes through, you have all that concentrated wood on the ground — and it just heats up the soil. It might not travel as fast as a crown fire, but you do have a problem.”

Fortunately, the small salvage projects already awarded included enough useable wood that the Forest Service didn’t have to kick in the expensive per-acre subsidy as in the regular White Mountain Stewardship sales.

That’s a promising portent for the 4-FRI, on which the Rim Country’s protection from future, catastrophic fires largely depends.

Local officials, loggers, environmentalists and officials from the four giant forests in northern Arizona are moving toward awarding contracts to logging companies to thin millions of acres. However, the plan depends on companies having the confidence in both the supply of wood and the stability of the markets to invest millions in biomass plants and small-diameter wood mills and plants to make things like pressed logs, fuel pellets for fireplaces and plywood. Some timber companies have expressed skepticism because the Forest Service wants to limit contracts to 10 years and won’t guarantee a minimum supply of wood, which makes building a mill a gamble.

“If you build a factory,” said Rugg, “you have to have a ready supply of wood at an economic travel distance. “If all your ready supply of wood is on public land, people are real leery of investing money into that.”

He noted that the biomass power plant in Snowflake consumes the small-diameter wood and slash from thinning 30 acres of wood each day. That means one plant consumes enough wood to thin 11,000 acres annually.

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Hot crown fires can now char even the big trees that once survived repeated low-intensity fires.

So that means it would take roughly 50 biomass plants running all year long to consume the downed wood from the area burned by the Wallow Fire.

Rugg said the key to utilizing a lot of small-diameter wood and brush in areas like Rim Country lies in transportation costs. The cost of trucking wood to the plant or a railroad line can easily swallow up the limited profits from handling bulky, small diameter trees and brush. That’s why small, biomass plants hold promise for areas like Rim Country, choked with small trees but far from a railroad siding.

Unfortunately, one recent study concluded that producing energy from such wood-burning biomass plants produces about 14 percent more carbon dioxide than existing forest management practices — contradicting previous studies suggesting the power plants might actually reduce carbon emissions. The studies were based on forests in Oregon and Germany and financed by the U.S. Department of Energy. The researchers said the results might not apply to forests so choked with trees that they’re vulnerable to catastrophic fires and things like bark beetle outbreaks, which either release massive amounts of carbon in a fire or impair tree growth.

Hopefully, the managers of the 4-FRI will benefit from the growing pains of the White Mountain Stewardship program and find a way to create thriving products for the small diameter trees that pose such a threat to Rim Country.

If they need motivation, they need only drive through the forest of charred snags left behind by the biggest fires in state history.

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