Creating a Sustainable Forest in the White Mountains

“Fire is an incredibly important step in forest management, but fire alone is not enough. We also need to thin trees and remove the residue."

-Ed Collins,
Lakeside District Ranger of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests


By Tana Kappel

Gary Moore, clad in a plaid shirt and white hard-hat, grins as he leads visitors around the bustling Forest Energy Corporation plant near Show Low. It’s a crisp fall morning and three semi-trucks are lined up, idling, waiting to unload their cargo of wood chips to be processed into pellets and other products. Stacks of wood chips, pellet bags and other products line the grounds.

“This company is doing great. We haven’t kept up with demand since 2005,” says Moore, Forest Energy’s director of operations. “Because of the White Mountain Stewardship Project, we were assured of a 10-year supply of local wood, and that gave us the confidence to invest in equipment.”

Forest Energy isn’t the only beneficiary of the six-year-old White Mountain Stewardship Project. Several area businesses use the wood to create pallets, custom beams, posts and poles, and biomass material. The project has jump-started the local economy, creating around 300 jobs in two of the most economically depressed counties in the country.

“Without the guarantee of wood, most of the businesses would not have invested the money they have and would not be in business,” says Molly Pitts, executive director of the Northern Arizona Wood Products Association.

Making the project pay—through jobs, funding and local support—is vital for achieving the other goals of the project: restoring the forest to health and making communities safe from fire.

Local Support for Forest Thinning 

Fires like the Wallow Fire and the equally destructive Rodeo-Chediski Fire in 2002 destroyed homes, recreation areas and important wildlife habitat, and chased hundreds of residents from their homes. These fires bring home in glaring detail the need to change how forests are managed.

“The White Mountain Stewardship Project tapped into a collaborative history of diverse groups working together to address forest restoration and stewardship,” says Sue Sitko, the Conservancy’s White Mountains program manager and member of the project’s monitoring board.

The result was a new approach aimed at preventing or minimizing the impacts of devastating fire, healing the forest, protecting wildlife and creating jobs. So far, almost 75,000 acres in the Apache-Sitgreaves Forest have received a makeover

Achieving forest health means balancing two goals: reducing the threat of catastrophic wildfire while improving habitat for wildlife. For millennia, frequent fire helped maintain a lower density of trees that left forests less prone to catastrophic fires.

“Grasses were knee-high and helped prevent germination of pine cones. The small pine seedlings that did emerge were usually knocked back by fire every three to seven years. These fires were low on the forest floor and didn’t damage the big trees,” says Ed Collins, Lakeside District Ranger of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests.

Fire a Key Part of Forest Stewardship

“Fire is an incredibly important step in forest management, but fire alone is not enough. We also need to thin trees and remove the residue,” says Collins.

In the White Mountains project, thinning plans incorporate information from wildlife surveys conducted by the Forest Service, the Conservancy, university scientists and state agencies. Some treatments involve preserving groups of trees, nesting sites and activity corridors for wildlife. Biologists are studying the project’s impacts on squirrels, bears, breeding songbirds and one of the forest’s top predators, the northern goshawk.

Before thinning occurs, a team—including a biologist, timber specialist, fire specialist, hydrologist and wildlife specialist—assesses which sites are to be treated. Some of the decision-making is left to the project’s logging contractor, Future Forest, LLC.

“That’s a new approach for all of us,” says Future Forest manager and part owner Dwayne Walker, who puts hundreds of miles on his maroon Ford truck shuttling between six crews and thinning sites. “Our employees are out there every day, so we see the forest and realize the results immediately.”

Having the cutters make some of the decisions—within the terms of the treatment plan—saves the Forest Service money. One way it cuts costs is that the agency doesn’t have to pay to spray-paint the trees to mark them for cutting.

“Traditionally the forest is thinned and the wood is left there. In this project, I tell the subcontractors in the field what products I want and where to haul them. We determine the marketing while we’re in the field; that saves time and money,” he says.

Logging Sustainably Means Involving the Local Economy

“We need forest products in order to have healthy forests,” says Molly Pitts. “In order to restore our forests to a healthy state where fires can safely burn, trees need to be removed. Treatments to remove the excess trees are costly and that is where the wood products industry is essential to the process.”

Also costly is determining how well the project is meeting its ecological goals. The main cost has to do with the project’s size—monitoring the impacts on 50,000 thinned acres dispersed within hundreds of thousands of forested acres.

It’s an investment that is showing multiple benefits. Songbird density is increasing in treated areas. Where trees are left in a clumpy pattern, mimicking historical forest structure, fire behavior models indicate a reduced risk of high-intensity wildfires.

The forest is slowly being transformed from one with severe fire risk to one that benefits communities, recreation, tourism and wildlife. ”It’s a win-win for everybody,” says Sitko.

You can help keep Arizona's forests healthy. Join The Nature Conservancy.


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