Small Tree Utilization: Challenge and Opportunity
It’s a pleasure to be back in this part of the country. I always enjoy being here in the Southwest. But I’m particularly happy to be here on this occasion—for this Smallwood convention. I really mean that. “Small tree utilization” might not mean much to some people. But I can’t think of many things that are more worthwhile than this.
You are here to explore ways of solving maybe the worst problem we face in the Interior West: the problem of catastrophic wildland fire. For that, I thank you. I thank you for taking the time to explore ways of helping us restore our forests to health.
I’d like to talk about four things today:
- First, I want to say a few words about the forest health crisis we face.
- Second, I want to talk a little about what we need to do to solve the problem.
- Third, we have many success stories to tell, and I’ll give you some examples.
- Finally, I want to point out the opportunities in this for our local communities—and, hopefully, for many of you personally.
Forest Health Crisis
First, let me talk a little about how our forests have changed over the years. I’m sure most of you are already aware of some of our forest health problems. But I think it’s worthwhile sometimes to step back and take another look at the big picture.
For many decades, trees have grown much faster than fire, harvest, and mortality combined could remove them. That’s especially true for softwoods in the West, and it’s especially true for the national forests. Let me just give you a few facts.
- From 1952 to 1997, net annual softwood growth more than doubled in the West.
- On the national forests, net annual softwood growth also more than doubled.
- In the next 10 to 20 years, we expect the upward trend to continue.
Just to give you some idea of what that means here in the Southwest—in Arizona and New Mexico—net annual growth is enough to cover a football field 1 mile high with solid wood. Recent removals have only been about 10 percent of this.
There’s more. We know from written accounts and from old photographs that many parts of the West have become densely forested just in the past 100 years. Before that, they were pretty open. Today, we often have a thousand or more trees where previously there were only 20 to 50 per acre. And this isn’t something that began only recently. If you look closely at some of those old photos from around 1900, you can already see small trees coming up in the grassy areas.
Eighty years ago, ranchers in Arizona were already complaining that brush was taking over the range. We still hear that today. At the time, the great ecologist Aldo Leopold—he was working for the Forest Service—offered a pretty good explanation. He pointed out that grass once covered the open woodland type in the Southwest—enough grass to carry fires set by lightning and American Indians. The fires kept out the brush and small trees. The range flourished—until settlers came along and stopped the fires.
Fire exclusion has made our forests dense, and that has changed the character of our forests. We have lost a lot of habitat for species that require open woodland. A good example is the red-cockaded woodpecker in the Southeast. Shading from canopies has greatly reduced the amount of grass and the number of forbs on the forest floor. These dense forests don’t support as much diversity as they once did, and they don’t offer as much in the way of scenic quality, either.
Perhaps the biggest change has to do with fire. In open woodland, fires tend to be relatively cool and low. But in the dense forests we have today, fires become huge infernos. These fires can do great damage to the ecosystem, not to mention the damage they do to human property and the threat they pose to human life.
The Forest Service has been working on the problem for a number of years now. Our measurements are continually evolving and improving, but we currently estimate that on the national forests alone, about 73 million acres are at risk from wildland fires that could compromise human safety and ecosystem integrity. And fire is not the only risk. On all ownerships, including federal, state, and private lands, about 70 million acres are at higher-than-normal risk from 26 different insects and pathogens. Other symptoms of a forest health crisis include the spread of invasive species and the degradation of watersheds.
I want to emphasize that these problems are interlinked. Overcrowding stresses and weakens trees, rendering them more prone to fire and more susceptible to pests, pathogens, and displacement by invasive species. We’ve known about the problem for years, but at the rate we were treating the forests we manage, I’m afraid we were slowly losing ground.
The fires of 2000 in the Northern Rockies showed that very clearly. So did the Cerro Grande Fire. Fuels that had accumulated over many years carried that fire to the very doorsteps of the people living in Los Alamos.
What To Do?
After the fires of 2000, the public demanded action. Something obviously had to be done to address the problem of hazardous fuels. There’s broad consensus that the first priority has to be the areas at risk in our communities and municipal watersheds. Through the National Fire Plan, Congress has appropriated money for the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior. Our first priority is to treat areas in the wildland/urban interface. We start there and work outward.
On this matter, I speak not only for the Forest Service. The Secretary of Agriculture has said that she is strongly committed to quickly reducing the fire danger in the vicinity of our rural and urban communities. Last year, the western governors and the Secretaries of Agriculture and the Interior signed 10-year agreement to act together along these lines.
Today, through the National Fire Plan, we finally have the means to win the battle. And that brings me to my second point: We know what we need to do. The key is to restore the historical openness of our forests by removing excess trees. There are only two ways I know of to remove excess trees: You can either burn them up or haul them away.
Burning can be a good choice sometimes, but often the forests are too dense to safely burn until after an initial thinning. Besides, some of the material we need to remove can be used to supply the American people with wood products. It seems ironic that we have all of this material that needs to be removed, yet we rely on imports to meet so much of our need for wood.
The American people need to ask themselves if they want to place the burden of supplying our nation with wood on countries that have fewer regulations for harvesting. I believe that we should be focusing on proper forest management. That means focusing on what you leave on the land and how you leave the forest. If we can just focus on that, then the discussion doesn’t need to revolve around what is or isn’t cut.
Some of the trees that are excess to the needs of the ecosystem are large enough for sawtimber. There are plenty of markets for that, so we can recover our costs. The problem is, a lot of the trees are too small for sawtimber, and there are currently no significant markets for them. There are also species such as juniper that need to be removed but don’t have significant markets.
The cost of removing and destroying trees can be astronomical. Costs can run from $150 to $500 per acre. Even with new funding through the National Fire Plan, we might not be able to afford these costs in many places. But even if we could, we owe it to the American taxpayer to find ways to offset or reduce these costs. For the National Fire Plan to succeed, we’ve got to show results and we’ve got to be cost-effective. That means we need to find uses for the materials we remove.
That’s where we need the private sector. The Forest Service is not—nor should we be—in the business of removing trees and putting them to use. We need the ingenuity, enterprise, and resources of our industry and our local communities. That’s why we’re sponsoring Smallwood 2002 and encouraging citizens to participate.
We need businesses that can do two things, alone or in combination:
- do the work of removing materials from the forest, and
- turn this resource into products that the American people want.
I’ve looked through the program for this conference, and it’s pretty impressive. You will hear this week of many potential opportunities for communities, businesses, and other groups to get involved in helping with this endeavor.
That brings me to my third point: We have many success stories to tell. I’ll give you a few examples.
- In Eagar, Arizona, there’s a company called Environmental Forest Solutions. This company is building a power plant that will use woody biomass. The plant will utilize some 40,000 tons annually of the very lowest value material.
- In Reserve, New Mexico, a log sort yard is being used to enable local loggers to sort their material and find the highest value for it.
- In Flagstaff, Arizona, a partnership has been formed called the Grand Canyon Forest Partnership. Through the partnership, several hundred acres with extreme fire hazards have been treated around Flagstaff.
- In Hayfork, California, they are turning small-diameter Douglas-fir into flooring and furniture. They have also formed partnerships and cooperatives to market and distribute their products.
- In the Bitterroot Valley of Montana, a pole and post manufacturer has expanded his products to include roundwood furniture and building components, such as trusses.
- In Cameron, Arizona, the Navajo tribe is constructing hogans using small-diameter roundwood.
- In Enterprise, Oregon, the community is involved in constructing a recreational building on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest using small-diameter roundwood trusses and vertical posts.
- In many parts of the country, school districts are exploring heating systems that use biomass—and possibly even combined heat-and-power systems.
There are many more success stories that are happening right now, but I don’t have time to name them all. They all serve as good examples of how small-diameter material can be used. Let me stress, though, that many more success stories are needed before we find uses for the billions and billions of trees that need to be removed to restore healthy, resilient ecosystems.
Now for my final point: There’s opportunity in all this. Yes, we face a forest health crisis of enormous proportions. But the tremendous challenge we face is also a tremendous opportunity. Our nation’s forests desperately need treatment. Our nation’s people need products—desperately, in some cases—ranging from energy, to homes, to paper, to toothpicks and chairs. When you put these two needs together, it adds up to a great opportunity for people in our local communities. We want our local communities to become part of the process—the part in the middle—of taking excess trees and turning them into useful products—and, in the process, making a living.
We would much rather see Americans using products from our forests and in turn getting jobs out of it than importing the wood, which means exporting both jobs and dollars. We would also much rather see wood used than most substitutes; wood takes far less energy and water to produce, and it is a better insulator than steel or aluminum. Best of all, it is renewable.
As I see it, the stars have finally lined up: Forests need treatment; the public, Congress, the governors, and the administration in Washington all recognize the need; and local communities can benefit from the work we need to do. Best of all, we will be leaving our forests in better condition, ready to provide for the many needs of future generations. This is the time; we must take action.
That’s why you’re here. You’re here to learn how we can harness one of the most powerful forces in our nation’s history—the marketplace—to help us restore our forests to health. Smallwood 2002 is an opportunity for you to discover how you can become part of this venture. Enjoy the conference, and hopefully you will go home with new ideas and networks to help you carry them out.
RPA Timber Assessment Homepage (http://www.fs.fed.us/research/rpa/about.php), updated 15 February 2002, tables 16-17.
Aldo Leopold, “Grass, Brush, Timber, and Fire in Southern Arizona” , in The River of the Mother of God (ed. Susan L. Flader and J. Baird Callicott, Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991), pp. 114-122.