A Win-Win-Win in Arizona's Wildfire-Prone Woods
A potential ‘everybody wins’ situation is underway in a portion of Arizona’s Coronado National Forest, a project that could end up benefiting overall area economic conditions, increasing revenues for several tribes, and helping to save an endangered species from extinction.
The fancy name is the Pinaleno Ecosystem Restoration Project, a 10-year-long woodlands restoration effort over nearly 6,000 acres located on Dzil Nchaa Si’an—traditional cultural property for Western Apaches—thinning out tree concentrations to reduce fuel loads and restore stands of higher elevation forest land.
All factors benefit from a project like this that will also bring specific additional bonuses to a subspecies of squirrel found only in these southeastern Arizona mountains as well as create forest product opportunities for small Indian Country businesses from San Carlos Apache communities to Mescalero and Fort Sill Apaches, Hopis, and Zunis.
“I’d call it a win-win-win situation for all sides,” says Coronado National Forest Supervisor Jim Upchurch. “We’ve had good support from environmental groups and all segments of the local population. What we’re looking at here is stewardship. The primary mission is to reduce fuel hazards in the forest and at the same time we’re creating opportunities for treatment of vegetation that will enhance habitat health for several species, including one on the endangered species list. So by implementing this project, conditions in the forest are improved, the animals get some assistance, and there’s an ancillary benefit of sales of timber and other forest products to benefit local economies.”
“We have several projects starting in this part of the national forest, perhaps relatively small in the overall scheme of things, but big undertakings for us,” says Coronado Forest silviculturist Craig Wilcox. “We’re hoping to stimulate interest in forest products that are appropriate in scale and focus—things like timber, firewood, woody biomass, post and pole production, and mobile saw mills. And to accomplish this, we’re seeking partners from the forest products world.”
Dee Randall, Forest Manager for the San Carlos Apache Tribe, is helping organize a December 3 workshop to stimulate interest in these business opportunities, some that will be a good fit for Native-owned industries like the one he manages, the San Carlos Apache Timber Products Company.
The largest wildfire in Arizona’s history burned through over 538,000 acres from late May till early July of this year, leaving an ecological disaster of frightening proportion. It was a wake-up call to put more emphasis on reducing fuel loads in the forest, the aim of the current project. As Senator John McCain noted after a tour of Wallow Fire damage: “Thinning is a valuable measure that needs to be taken if fires are to be prevented in the future.”
“Our sawmill has been shut down since June because of wildfire destruction this year in addition to a market downturn,” Randall says. “We had a lot of fire traffic on our site and had to shut logging operations down, but we’re ramping up to re-start the mill to provide rough cut lumber, things like pallet wood, molding, and poles for local market consumption as well as exporting it off-reservation.”
When timber operations are up and humming, they represent a boost in employment and revenue for the tribe. “Our saw mill can process up to 8 million board feet a year and 5 million of that comes from our own forest lands while the other 3 million is subcontracted to independent cutters. We’ve got 8 cutters who bring in rough cut wood on a regular basis with another 20 or so that make periodic visits with wood gathered from private off-reservation timberland.”
The mill itself employs 20 or more tribal members plus another 10 who act as truckers, haulers and skidders. “And we do a good business in our home heating biomass and firewood operation where we sell juniper, oak and pine out of our wood yard,” Randall says.
According to the project summary written by the U.S. Forest Service, the composition of the forest has changed over the years. Historically, stands of fire-adapted mixed-conifer species could handle low-intensity surface fires, but recent field observations show a large quantity of dead trees “leaving the forest increasingly vulnerable to disease, insect infestation, and catastrophic fires, particularly the rapid-spreading high-intensity tree-top variety.”
As many as four major wildfires in the past decade in Arizona have destroyed large areas of wildlife habitat including critical homelands of the Mexican spotted owl and one of North America’s 25 subspecies of red squirrels, the geographically-isolated Mount Graham red squirrel, added to the Endangered Species List in 1987.
The Arizona Game & Fish Department monitors middens (piles of conifer cone scales used to store food items) on a yearly basis and calculates red squirrel population numbers as part of its conservation program. The 2011 survey count is 240, a ten percent increase over the 2010 survey (but only half the 550 animals counted in the late 1990s).
“Squirrel numbers are closely tied to available habitat,” says Tim Snow, non-game specialist for the Game & Fish Department. “Improving forest health and preventing catastrophic wildfire events will help ensure the continued existence of these squirrels.”