Five years after fire, sides differ on salvage logging

OVERGAARD - Winding through the forest just south of here, National Forest Road 51 tells a tale of devastation and recovery.

There are large stumps, reminders of burned trees that have been hauled off to mills. Piles of wood chips await transport to a plant that will burn them for energy.

Plastic cylinders dot an otherwise barren landscape, protecting ponderosa pine seedlings planted about 20 feet apart.

Five years after the Rodeo-Chediski fire raged across nearly a half million acres in eastern Arizona, destroying hundreds of homes, the scene along this road illustrates elements that are key to the U.S. Forest Service's long-term plan for burned areas of the Sitgreaves National Forest: removing what burned from selected areas, planting anew and letting nature handle the rest.

Actually, "long-term" is an understatement. The officials who developed and implemented the plan won't live to see the final results.

What was lost in a matter of days in Arizona's largest wildfire will take more than 100 years to replace, and the forest won't ever look like it once did, according to Gayle Richardson, a forest management specialist at the Black Mesa Ranger District in Overgaard.

"I would hope it wouldn't go back to what it was, because it was way too dense," she said. "I think it'll be a different forest. I think we're going to see a lot of alligator juniper and gamble oak areas that are probably not going to have ponderosa pine for a long time, not in our lifetime."

Junipers and oaks are "prolific sprouters" that thrive in a post-fire landscape, Richardson said.

Salvage logging began after fire

The large tree stumps along National Forest Road 51 are a reminder of salvage logging, one of the earliest projects undertaken by the Forest Service after the fire. Following a series of legal challenges by environmental groups, the Forest Service began salvage logging in July 2003 and finished earlier this year. Time was of the essence, officials said, because the value of lumber from dead trees diminishes over time.

Sandy Bahr, a spokeswoman for the Grand Canyon chapter of the Sierra Club, said the group sued to prevent salvage logging because it promotes soil erosion and removes habitats for some wildlife, such as woodpeckers.

"The other thing that we raised is that it's a loss to the taxpayer," Bahr said. "A lot of timber sales, they lose money overall. That's been the Sierra Club's major criticism in addition to the environmental damage done."

But Black Mesa district ranger Kate Klein said the salvage logging was necessary to remove potential fuel for fires and to reduce the threat from falling trees. Of the 90,000 acres of severely burned Forest Service land, officials made 34,000 acres available for logging.

The salvage logging was spaced to create open areas that would help contain future fires and prevent fires from reaching nearby towns, Klein said.

Biomass removal takes over

After salvage logging is completed in a particular zone, smaller trees and branches that can't be used for lumber remain. That's where Scott Higginson comes in.

Higginson is the vice president of NZ Legacy, a Mesa-based company that owns the biomass energy plant outside Snowflake. Biomass energy comes from burning substances such as wood chips, sawdust and paper.

A two-man crew turns the remaining trees and branches into large piles of wood chips. One man operates a crane to feed the logs into a large chipper while the other drives a bulldozer, gathering the logs for the crane operator. The chips are piled on the side of the road and eventually taken to the biomass plant, slated to open in early 2008.

NZ Legacy pays for chipping and transport, but the wood chips themselves are free. It is a mutually beneficial relationship, Klein said. NZ Legacy gets fuel for its plant, while the Forest Service waves goodbye to potential kindling for future fires.

With the salvage logging in the past and the biomass removal nearing completion, the Forest Service is looking towards the future by replanting.

Because of the expense and high rate of loss, the Forest Service has only replanted 1,100 acres and plans to replant 1,000 more over the next five years, Richardson said. Most of the reforestation will have to be done by the trees that survived the fire.