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The Changing Face of Southwestern Forests and Forest Products

 aspen trees forestSigns of Forest Restoration

In the foothills of central New Mexico’s Manzano Mountains, Phil Archuletta has seen the signs of the future. In fact, he has seen many signs since he founded P&M Signs in 2009. His business plan is to turn small diameter ponderosa pine trees, which few people want, along with plastic milk containers, which have already been thrown away, into signs and home building materials.

He calls the compound he has created Altree, because it uses the whole tree – the needles, the bark, the treetops, the spindly branches – and the product has the potential to grow into quite a forest of possibilities.

“We are trying to get funding to build a factory,” he said. “The material is waterproof and termite resistant. It can be used for housing and flooring, it can eliminate the felt paper in roofing, it would compete with aluminum and plywood, and there is a never-ending supply of small diameter trees in the forest. We are also taking the #2 plastic out of the landfill, so it’s a green-green project all the way around.”

Entrepreneurs like Archuleta, of Mountainair, New Mexico, are sprouting into a larger segment of the forest products industry as the Forest Service speeds up efforts to restore millions of acres of overgrown, fire-prone forests in the Southwest.

“Wood from small diameter ponderosa pine is low value because it twists and corkscrews and is difficult to make boards from,” said forester Dick Fleishman. “However, there are new and emerging markets that add value to the product such as pellets, guard rails, mine timbers and even biofuels.”

The Forest Service expects to release the Phase 1 Final Environmental Impact Statement (FEIS) in late November or early December for the nation’s largest forest health project, the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI). It is the culmination of years of meetings with the 4FRI Stakeholder Group, which is made up of scientists, elected officials, loggers, ranchers, hunters, environmentalists and others.

The FEIS analyzes restoration treatments on one million acres on the Coconino and Kaibab national forests. This represents the first phase of 4FRI that spans 2.4 million acres from south of the Grand Canyon, between Williams and Flagstaff, down to Payson, along the Mogollon Rim and over to the White Mountains.

Those who responded to the Draft EIS or during scoping may submit objections about the final document. Alongside the Final EIS, the Forest Service will come out with a draft Record of Decision.

“4FRI is accelerating every restoration effort,” said Fleishman, the 4FRI assistant team leader. “This includes just about everything we do, including efforts to improve watershed conditions, trail and road maintenance, prescribed burning, stream channel restoration, road decommissioning and noxious weed treatments.”

“A lot will be going on and it will mean an adjustment for everyone in the area,” said Shaula Hedwall, senior fish and wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service and a member of the Stakeholder Group. “Communities will have to adjust a little. We’ll all have to be sensitive to logging trucks running along Lake Mary Road.”


Open Spaces, Closed Canopies, Large Trees, Old Trees

The 4FRI Stakeholder Group wrestled with issues that include how to make sure adequate forest openings and adequate tree clumps remain within the massive thinning and burning projects.

“We want to make sure to have a mixture of dense places and open places without having that jail-bar look where trees are spaced evenly apart,” said Hedwall. “One of the keys to the 4FRI success is how nimble we’ll be able to be as we move forward.”

Being nimble is the goal behind an extensive monitoring plan the Stakeholder Group has designed.

“How the monitoring board and adaptive management plan came together was a milestone for us,” said social science consultant Anne Mottek Lucas, who, like Hedwall, has been part of the Stakeholder Group since it began in 2008.

Protecting large diameter trees has been another concern. The Stakeholder Group addressed this through the Old Growth Protection and Large Tree Retention Strategy.


West’s Most Studied Ecosystem

“Decades of science findings are the shoulders that the 4FRI stands on,” said ERI Director of Policy and Partnerships Diane Vosick.

Fleishman agreed, “There’s no other place like this that has more science. It is probably the most heavily researched ecosystem in the West.”

Since 1908, researchers have been studying the ponderosa pine forests of the Southwest. That’s when the nation’s oldest experimental forest, the G.A. Pearson Natural Area, was established some 12 miles northwest of Flagstaff in the Fort Valley Experimental Forest.

“Sites like this have helped us understand that ponderosa pine forests were much more open than today and they illustrate how forests and openings were shaped by frequent ground fire,” said ecologist and ERI Executive Director Wally Covington, Ph.D. “There were an average of 23 trees per acre on this site before 1876. After pioneers arrived and fire was eliminated from the ecosystem, the number of trees increased to more than 1,250 trees per acre.”

“From the 1960s on, we’ve experienced wildfires steadily growing in size. We’re now in the era of mega fires,” said Covington.


Ready to Launch

Foresters and researchers point out that much forest restoration work already has occurred in the Flagstaff area.

“The Final EIS is really cause for celebration,” said Vosick. “The Flagstaff community has been actively restoring the forests for more than 15 years. The treatments proposed for 4FRI have been tested again and again. We know a lot about how plants and animals respond to restoration projects and this community serves as a model for the nation when it comes to attacking forest health issues with science and collaboration.”

City of Flagstaff Wildland Fire Management Officer Paul Summerfelt says 4FRI is a groundbreaking, historic project that needs to launch. “If we fail, the future is bleak for the forest. I’m satisfied with getting it 80 to 90 percent right as we go. We know what will happen if we don’t do anything. That’s catastrophic and unacceptable not only to our forests but to our communities and our watersheds. I’m absolutely confident in the 4FRI stated objective: to restore forests.”

Forest Service representatives say a lot has changed in the last decade or so: technology for dealing with small diameter wood has improved, non-traditional wood product markets have developed and some restoration projects are starting to pay for themselves rather than having to be subsidized by the federal government.

For New Mexico sign maker Phil Archuletta, these are all good signs indeed. “Our purpose is to eliminate the small diameter trees and the parts of the trees that logging operations have left behind in the past so there would be nothing left on the ground. We could eliminate catastrophic fire, while providing a green building product and creating jobs.” FBN

By Bonnie Stevens

Flagstaff Business News

Bonnie Stevens is a public relations consultant working with the Ecological Restoration Institute at NAU. She can be reached at bonnie.stevens@gmail.com.


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