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Arizona Fire Reflects Opportunity Burning

Arizona Fire Reflects Opportunity Burning

Story by Dan Shell,
Managing Editor

With wildfires burning out of control in northeast Arizona, spreading into New Mexico and parts of Colorado, Pascal Berlioux could be forgiven for exclaiming a loud “I told you so!” to those who oppose taking direct action to address forest health issues in Arizona and other parts of the U.S. West. In the region, ongoing drought and higher temperatures are combining with two decades of unmanaged public forest holdings to create a tinderbox just waiting for a lightning strike, a tossed cigarette butt or—in the Arizona Wallow fire’s case—an abandoned campfire to ignite years of forest fuel buildup thanks to overstocked, unthinned timber stands that are more susceptible to pest infestations and fire hazards.

Berlioux is the President and CEO of Arizona Forest Restoration Products, a group of investors who have pledged to build an OSB and OSL plant in northern Arizona near Winslow—if only public land managers could offer a degree of certainty that the mill could acquire the timber it needs to run.

The group’s plan would provide two major benefits: creating a source of jobs for the area at the plant, but perhaps most importantly the facility would bring a sizable forest products player to the area that could serve as a linchpin for small log and biomass utilization. In doing so, the facility would provide a critical market for low-quality timber and other material coming from public forests in the region, giving logging contractors and other landowners a much-needed destination for material that’s produced through timber stand improvement operations.

Like other regions of the Intermountain West, Arizona is facing forest health and wildfire concerns of epic proportions, covering millions of acres. In that state, the Four Forests Restoration Initiative, which is essentially a four national forest stewardship project on steroids, seeks to remediate forest health conditions on 2.4 million acres during the next 20 years. Long-distrustful stakeholder groups ranging from environmentalists to wise-use advocates have signed on to the project and pledged to make it work.

But the biggest obstacle to the project’s success (outside of preservationist legal challenges, which are always possible no matter what “consensus” is thought to be reached) is a commercial market for the biomass and solid wood products coming off affected timberland. Here’s why: Forest officials estimate costs for stand improvement average $1,000/acre. With 2.4 million acres in play, that’s a lot of thousands. And with deficit reduction the watchword for federal spending these days, there’s no way the Forest Service will be given the money to simply pay contractors for forest health improvement. It’s simply not gonna happen.

Without providing a commercial outlet for the material coming off those lands and financial incentive for contractors to go in and remove fuel, the forest health situation will instead be resolved “naturally” through a series of raging wildfires that damage wildlife habitat and water quality, not to mention some of the most beautiful landscapes America has to offer.

Meanwhile, Congress continues to fund firefighting instead of fire prevention and wise-use advocates and environmentalists warily try to hold hands in a forest health stewardship project lifeboat, wondering whose interests are going overboard. And all the while, opportunities to create jobs and improve forest health are burning. PW

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