Big ideas needed on uses for trees cleared under Arizona's Four Forest Restoration Initiative; success will depend on innovation, a changes in mindset

VERDE VALLEY, Arizona , July 15, 2011 () – The success or failure of the Four Forests Restoration Initiative, which will clear out the fire hazard from Arizona's ponderosa pine forests, will depend on innovation as well as a changes in mindset.

But a change of heart and new ideas may or may not be enough to make it successful.

The biggest issue for loggers has always been one of supply. It takes a lot of trees to get a return on investment. But with a million acres of trees to clear out over the next 20 years, 4FRI should satisfy the need.

"We all recognize that forest restoration is expensive. We know the best way to make the project successful is to engage industry and have them become a partner in the solution.

"The idea behind 4FRI is to provide enough material over a long period of time to make the investment worthwhile," says Ed Smith with the Nature Conservancy.

With enough trees comes the next question. What do you do with all of them?

Companies involved in the White Mountain Stewardship restoration project have been using the trees cleared from around the mountain communities to make heating pellets and wood pallets, and burning the rest of the wood at a biomass electrical generating plant outside of Snowflake.

But finding a use for what's cleared off the million acres at stake in the 4FRI project may require bigger ideas.

To date, about a dozen companies, some that have been in the logging and lumber industry for years and some that are potential start-ups have expressed an interest in finding the solution.

The list of large scale solutions include the manufacture of OSB sheeting, a building material made from pressed wood shavings and the development of a high tech saw mill capable of using smaller logs and turning them into both wood manufacturing commodities and finished products.

Both ideas will take a substantial investment in money and time, both of which may or may not be as available as the trees.

Rob Davis of Forest Energy Corporation, a company that has been working on the White Mountains Stewardship project for six years, says the 4FRI has many more challenges than processing wood.

"I think it's going to be pretty difficult. The reason the White Mountain Stewardship program hasn't done more is because we have the worst lumber economy, the worst overall national economy and the highest oil prices that we have had in years.

"Every one is saying the economy will get better. But so far it hasn't. We will be betting on the come," says Davis.

A consistent supply of wood will also play a huge role.

"The Forest Service has acknowledged that there is no minimum amount of wood that will be available annually. We might get lost of wood year one and might not get any year two and three. That's pretty tough to stay alive especially if you have invested in a plant," says Davis.

There is also problem creating the market necessary to absorb whatever it is the contractor or contractors produces.

"It's a matter of capacity," says Henry Provencio, with the Coconino National Forest. "We are currently treating an average of 15,000 acres a year. To triple the amount you will need more loggers, more infrastructure and a bigger market. That's a huge, huge leap."

Some of the parties interested in the project have also balked at the relatively short, 10-year contacts. They would like to see a 20-year contract to better ensure their investment.

"By law we can't give a contract over 10 years. And there is no guarantee they would get any additional contract after the ten years are up. But, whoever gets the initial contract is going to be in position to get an subsequent ones," says Provencio

Whatever the obstacles, most people in the logging industry look on the 4FRI as a good thing.

"I was skeptical at first. But now I believe it could be positive on a number of fronts, depending on how it goes," says Allen Ribelin of the Northern Arizona Loggers Association, "We may have some issues of timing and funding. Many Arizona loggers are struggling if not broke.

"But whatever happens we are going to need more loggers. And that's a good thing."

Most of those in private industry say the best thing going for the 4FRI is the spirit of cooperation taking place between the industry, the Forest Service and the environmental organizations.

"The good part is that there is a good collaboration. We all agree that for the forest's sake the work needs to be done on a large scale, it needs to be done now not years down the road, and it needs to be kept going in a big way.

"That's the encouraging thing because it helps businesses to raise money if they know there are not going to be any lawsuits," says Davis.

The environmental side echoes the same feelings.

"We are hopeful that the 4FRI marks a new era of restoring forest and sustaining the species that have called the forest home," says Taylor McKinnon of the Center for Biological Diversity. "There has been a lot of fighting in decades past and we are hoping we can continue working together."

Reproduced with the permission of the author.

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