PAGOSA SPRINGS, Colo. — J.R. Ford’s company removes trees and brush from key areas around subdivisions, power lines and water utility infrastructure in a bid to better protect people from wildfire. It’s work that’s vitally important here in the arid West, where mountains have become overgrown with quick-to-burn trees such as ponderosa pine.
But many of the trees that Ford’s Forest Health Company removes are too thin to turn into conventional lumber products, such as boards and planks. So he chips them. And now, six years into his 10-year tree thinning contract with the Forest Service, he has far more chips than he can sell.
Four orange-brown heaps of wood chips, as high as 20 feet tall, loom around his small sawmill in the mountain town of Pagosa Springs, Colorado. The heaps collectively cover five acres, he calculates. They’re so vast that his company has halved the area it thins per year to between 500 and 600 acres. “We’ve slowed down,” he said, “because you can only pile so many wood chips.”
The Trump administration, states and local leaders — including many environmentalists — agree that more must be done to avert catastrophic wildfire, including thinning trees. But few timber companies have found a way to make a profit from the stewardship work land managers want.
That means the work is costly, and can be delayed while contractors tinker with their business model.
Mechanical thinning on steep slopes can cost taxpayers up to $2,000 per acre in Colorado, said Courtney Schultz, director of the public lands policy group at Colorado State University. While it’ll take controlled burns to improve forest conditions on a large scale, she said, the state also needs contractors who can turn forest debris into dollars.
“We’ve got to figure out: How can they set themselves up to make that a little more cost-effective for the public?” she said.
Traditional timber sales, in contrast, make money for taxpayers, because companies pay for the privilege of extracting the lumber.
Not all environmentalists are happy with the move toward more tree removal on public lands. Republicans in Congress have pushed to include language in the farm bill that would loosen environmental regulations to make it easier for logging and thinning projects to move forward, a move that Democrats have strongly opposed.
At the local level, however, timber companies and environmentalists have often found that they can work with the Forest Service to pick projects everyone can agree on. Land managers might choose to carefully remove skinny trees from one overgrown area, clear a small meadow in another and move forward with a timber sale to harvest dead trees elsewhere, for instance.
Colorado researchers, timber companies and environmentalists are more likely to point to lack of timber industry capacity than lawsuits from environmentalists or over-regulation as a problem that’s holding work back.
To make money from the low-value wood he harvests, Ford is planning to build a facility that will turn wood chips into a product called biochar, a kind of charcoal that, when planted in the ground, helps retain fertilizer and water.
Every mountain town in the West is trying to figure out how to thin trees in a more-cost effective way, he said. “I’ve kind of gotten addicted to the process of trying to solve the problem.”
Back in the 1960s and 1970s, logging was big business in Southwest Colorado. By the 1990s, the industry had faded away, a casualty of changing markets, anti-logging campaigns waged by environmentalists and federal policies that reduced timber sales on public land. Most forest land in the region is owned by the federal government.
“There was a pretty dramatic pendulum swing that happened against logging,” said Aaron Kimple, program director for the Mountain Studies Institute, a Silverton, Colorado-based nonprofit. But now the pendulum is swinging back, he said.
Environmentalists, water utility officials, Forest Service staff and local executives in the area now agree that local forests have become too overgrown, and that careful tree removal would benefit communities and ecosystems. Around 2012 they formed a collaborative called the San Juan Headwaters Forest Health Partnership to identify and push for tree thinning and prescribed fire projects. Kimple serves as the coordinator.
Just south of downtown Pagosa Springs and uphill from the hot springs that draw many tourists to the mountain community, a town-owned forest has become a showcase for the targeted tree-thinning projects the group champions.
“We looked at this hill, and for years had been saying — that thing needs to be treated,” Kimple said. Not only was the ponderosa pine forest denser than it would have been a hundred years ago, when small forest fires frequently cleared the landscape, but the density created ideal conditions for a severe fire right above the town.
The collaborative had to convince the town council and locals that letting in Ford and his feller-buncher machine — “which looks a little bit like equipment out of The Lorax” — was a good idea, Kimple said. Demonstrations, tours of the area and research by high school students helped create enough support for the state-funded project to move forward.
Today, a year after Ford’s machines drove away with their last load of wood chips, the trees on the hill are spaced a few feet apart with grass growing between them. There’s some brush and lots of light playing across the forest floor. Although there are fewer trees, the park still smells deliciously of pine.
Standing in a clearing on a recent sunny afternoon, Kimple said he’s seen a lot of overgrown forest to tackle across the region. “We’re really playing catch-up … we’re just so far behind,” he said.
But getting the work done requires contractors. When the collaborative started, the only local contractor available was Ford, a ranch manager who had dipped his toe into forestry. The closest large sawmill, 160 miles away, had just declared bankruptcy.
“The other thing we realized in our county was, all the infrastructure for forestry is gone,” Ford said.
Forest health groups across dry Western states such as Colorado and Arizona, and regions such as Northern California and Eastern Oregon, are trying to rebuild their local timber industry and reorient it around removing wood that has very little commercial value: trees under 10 inches in diameter, dense saplings and the debris associated with logging larger trees — such as limbs and foliage.
Neil Chapman, the Nature Conservancy’s Northern Arizona program restoration manager, calls the shift a “restoration-based economy, not an extraction-based economy.”
Ford is one of the contractors trying to make restoration work profitable. He won his Forest Service contract by proposing to burn wood chips to generate electricity and sell it to the local utility. But the regional utility cooperative killed the idea when it refused to raise its cap on locally generated electricity.
Ford’s latest plan is to build a facility that would turn wood chips into biochar, a product he hopes to sell to gardeners and commercial landscapers. The company has the building permits it needs to get started and is waiting on air quality permits, he said.
The region is now home to a growing number of wood products companies. Durango, Colorado-based consultant Kyle Hanson recently won a Forest Service grant to explore whether there’s a local market for cross-laminated timber panels, an unconventional, high-tech building material, and whether they can be made from ponderosa pine.
Other companies are harvesting trees damaged by beetles, which have infested nearly 3.4 million acres of pine and 1.78 million acres of spruce trees across Colorado since the 1990s. If the trees are harvested shortly after they die, they can be turned into lumber with a distinctive blue color, which has become a trendy material for building furniture and decorating walls.
And Montrose Forest Products, the region’s major sawmill, is back in business and expanding operations, thanks to new opportunities to log public lands.
Matt Tuten, supervisory forester for the San Juan National Forest’s Pagosa District, said at a recent collaborative group meeting that he aims to support a range of timber businesses, from loggers and haulers to chippers. “Having five different operators out in the woods,” he said, “is really a better situation than having one contractor out in the woods.”
The goal is to create a more resilient local timber economy and more stability for the forest management program, he said.
For the San Juan National Forest and many others, supporting industry can mean considering projects that are less than perfect from an ecological point of view, such as letting companies harvest some larger, more valuable timber as well as the small stuff to help their bottom line.
Some forests have tried offering large, long-term contracts to stimulate the tree-thinning industry. But guaranteeing a steady flow of work doesn’t solve the industry’s problems.
In 2012, the largest forest collaborative group in the country — a 2.4 million-acre partnership spanning four national forests in Arizona — issued an up to 300,000-acre, decadelong thinning contract. The winning contractor promised to build a wood products manufacturing and biomass plant but didn’t raise enough money to do so. A new company took over in 2013, but has also struggled. So far, about 11,000 of the contracted acres have been treated.
“The markets haven’t followed what is the largest contract in the history of the Forest Service,” Chapman said.
Dick Fleishman, a Forest Service official and operations coordinator for the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, said the agency has had more success finding contractors and carrying out work on the Eastern side of the project, where there’s an existing sawmill and biomass plant.
“Where you have your mill infrastructure greatly influences your ability to make money,” he said. That’s because the wood removed during tree-thinning is worth so little that companies can’t afford to haul it long distances.
The leaders of the Arizona collaborative have pressed ahead with other ideas to support the timber industry, including partnering with the state commerce authority to find grants and tax incentives for sawmills and lobbying state utility regulators to allow more biomass generation, Fleishman said.
The Nature Conservancy, a national environmental advocacy group, is helping Arizona companies and the Forest Service test more efficient ways to make tree thinning cheaper, such as using mapping technology to identify trees that need to be removed and letting felled timber sit for a while before being hauled away, so it dries out and becomes lighter. “It’s all these little things that eventually add up,” Chapman said.
In Colorado, the state forest service is working with Colorado State University to research potential business models for the wood products industry.
Creating a better business climate for the timber industry may also require the Forest Service to make some changes, said Colorado State University’s Schultz.
“The Forest Service was doing timber management for decades as their primary activity, and then things shifted into this ecologically focused, collective mode,” she said. The agency needs to make sure it’s putting resources into managing long-term contracts and retaining staff who work on them, she said.
Molly Pitts, executive director of the Colorado Timber Industry Association, said that as Forest Service budgets have declined and staffing has shrunk, it’s common for environmental assessments to be held up because a soil sciences position is sitting open, or a wildlife biologist has been called out on a wildfire assignment.
“Over time, it ends up being a much longer process [to complete an environmental review] than if the Forest Service was fully staffed and could focus on that kind of work,” she said.
As the timber industry grows and the Forest Service and state land managers ramp up tree removal work, there’s always a potential for controversy and litigation. But collaboration can help defuse the tension.
The San Juan Citizens Alliance, a Durango-based environmental nonprofit, spent years litigating timber sales and other projects before it started talking to Forest Service officials and getting involved in groups such as the collaborative based in Pagosa Springs, said Jimbo Buickerood, the nonprofit’s lands and forest protection program manager.
“Since then, we’ve never had the need to protest or litigate,” he said.
Before Ford built his sawmill, he called Buickerood to get his blessing, which Buickerood said he gave right away, as he knew Ford wasn’t planning on launching a major commercial logging operation.
When work is done on a local scale, everyone knows one another, and they consult the latest forestry science, so it’s easier to find a middle ground, Buickerood said. Ford’s sawmill allows him to make good use of the trees he removes to protect community assets from fire. “It’s a total win-win-win,” Buickerood said.