Arizona forest industry near collapse

The Sept. 19 meeting of the National Resources Working Group offered a glimpse of an overwhelmed Northern Arizona timber industry on the brink of collapse.

The industry remains critical to saving communities like Payson and Show Low from the next megafire. It also will determine whether the C.C. Cragin Reservoir and even Roosevelt Lake fill up with silt and debris.

But forest restoration plans will collapse if the Forest Service can’t process timber sales fast enough to sustain the existing industry, much less ramp up to the challenge of thinning six million acres of badly overgrown and mismanaged forests. The Forest Service in the past 20 years has managed only a fraction of the 50,000 acres of thinning per year promised by the 4-Forests Restoration Initiative. Even at that rate, it would take 80 years to treat 4 million acres.

To add to the problems, the only biomass burning plant in the state has nearly run out of the wood it needs to stay in business, thanks to a shortage of loggers, a lack of Forest Service workers to process timber sales, a lack of sufficient subsidies to remove low-value biomass, the lingering effects of the pandemic and a wet winter that kept loggers out of the forest.

Novo Biopower offers one of the few markets for the low-value biomass that makes up half of the material which restoration projects must remove. A century of fire suppression, grazing and clear-cutting has turned a fire-adapted 50-tree-per-acre forest into a 1,000-trees-per-acre firetrap. The 20-year drought and rising temperatures have dramatically increased the intensity and lethality of wildfires in the entire west.

The Natural Resources Working Group meeting was going through a long list of delayed projects last week. Apache-Sitgreaves Forest representatives told the listening local officials, loggers and industry representatives that instead of the 16,000 acres worth of projects they’d hoped to get cleared for 2023, the total number will come in closer to 12,000. The massive Black River sale continues to slip month after month. In part, that reflects the 70 empty positions in the Forest Service’s timber sales and preparation office. Even if a local administrator finds a needed worker, it can take a year to get a clearance to hire that worker through the bureaucracy.

The chronicle of delay and disappointment finally drove Novo Biopower President Brad Worsley to despair. Worsley has for years held together the Northern Arizona timber industry with hope and baling wire, loans, trucks, extra payments and intense collaboration. The wood-chip burning power plant in Snowflake makes most of the forest thinning and restoration projects in the region viable by providing a market for the biomass.

“The industry is shrinking due to a lot of challenges, a tough winter and the inflation that followed the COVID pandemic,” said Worsley. “I’ve been talking about this over and over. You can’t go pushing a juniper sale if there are no drivers to haul material to the plant. Of course, we need that wood; I’m out of wood. I’m talking a day and a half of current usable inventory at our facility. We have not got the industry to recover. I don’t know what to do. We’re empty. We’re empty. We cannot resurrect an industry under the current market conditions and without assistance.”

“We have to prioritize,” said Pascal Berlioux, head of the Eastern Arizona Association of Counties, which hosts the Natural Resource Working group of industry representatives. He said the continual delays in timber sales and the shortfall in contracts offered makes it difficult for the industry to survive.

“The usefulness of this conversation is for us to assess whether it is realistic to be OK with the fact that we are putting up 10,000 to 12,000 acres next year.”

“That’s the least of my concerns, 12,000 acres next year,” said Worsley. “I asked for and need 3,000 acres of local PJ (pinyon juniper) to get through a bad winter and nowhere near that amount was offered or prepared for this coming winter. Look at C.C. Cragin. We cannot get it done without increased trucking capacity. We have said what we need and it seems we are not being heard.”

Josh Miller, with the Apache-Sitgreaves timber management office, said the forest is authorized to offer some 25,000 acres, “But it has more to do with where they are, and the availability. We’re offering a lot of acres where it doesn’t work in this case or it doesn’t work in that case.” Each contract gives each logger several years to get the cut done.

The handful of logging companies bid on every contract they can get, but sometimes aren’t ready to start cutting. So the flow of wood is sporadic to the sawmills and Novo Biopower. But the loggers can’t afford to turn that contract back in if they can’t get to it quickly, because they have no idea when they’ll get another contract.

“The loggers will go down in a ball of flames before they turn those acres back to the USFS because they are arguably their greatest asset,” said Worsley. “There’s a big ball of wood not being accessed because the diminished logging capacity can’t do it — not even close.”

“If there’s one operation in Arizona we can’t afford to lose, it’s Novo Biopower,” said Berlioux. “We’re in survival mode.”

“Many of our partners are still here because of the assistance we provided,” said Worsley. “If I simply let them fail then we lose the diminished output they provide even it is just three loads of chips a day … I need that to hang on. My resources are limited.

“I know I have to do whatever I can to save even the fraction of industry that’s left. If I stopped supporting the struggling entities it might be the death knell for Novo Power. I just don’t feel that support or urgency from those above me. If Novo Biopower goes away, this whole thing falls apart — what’s left of it. There’s nowhere else to take this wood. I am desperately trying to use every resource I have, but I need help.”

He cited as an example of a 700-acre biomass-only timber sale he needed to assure his winter inventory was built, which was simply not awarded to a new, outside contractor — with no explanation for why it could not have been provided in the time that it was needed.

Berlioux threw the question to Randy Fuller, the Southwestern Deputy Director of Forest Management in the Albuquerque regional office, who was participating remotely.

“Everyone understands the capacity issues across the board,” said Fuller. “We’re trying to use all the authorities we have available. It’s an uphill climb. I guess from my perspective, I’m looking for that outside help. There’s no single solution, just a bunch of incremental work. I’m just trying to gather information to take it to our leadership and say, ‘Here are the concerns we’re hearing.’

“I don’t have a lot of answers. We’re going as hard as we can to build internal capacity and it’s uphill. I would take exception to the claim that throwing money at the problem is the solution. We need warm bodies, people to do the work. I can’t speak about what the Washington Office is willing to do. It’s not necessarily a funding issue. It’s capacity.”

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