Thinning the Thickets

Environmentalists join with the timber industry to save national forests from fire

When it came to logging in the Southwest, the Tucson-based Center for Biological Diversity won the war in a rout.

"We squashed the timber industry and the Forest Service, and dictated the terms of surrender," says Kieran Suckling, the director of the center.

He's talking about a war that began in the 1980s, when the group charged that the U.S. population of Mexican spotted owls had shrunk to just a few thousand because of logging in the old-growth ponderosa pines. The group ultimately won a 1996 court injunction that temporarily shut down logging on all national forests in Arizona and New Mexico. Within a few years, applying more legal pressure on behalf of all affected species, it forced the Forest Service to reduce logging by 70 percent and limit the harvest to trees less than 16 inches in diameter.

Arizona's timber industry—dependent on the big trees for making lumber—nearly disappeared. But environmentalists' celebrations were cut short by a 2002 conflagration: A half-million acres and hundreds of houses burned in the Rodeo-Chediski fire, the largest fire in Arizona's recorded history. Decades of logging and fire suppression had made Arizona's famous 2.4 million acre ponderosa pine belt the most overgrown and flammable thickets in the West.

Study after study and committee after committee have agreed that the dog-haired thickets should be cleared out to make room for the restoration of old-growth ponderosa pines. The big, thick-barked ponderosas are natural fire managers—able to survive frequent, low-intensity fires that remove the understory—and they consume less groundwater than thickets do.

Suckling's group and nearly everyone else in Arizona realized that something had to be done, and that the timber industry would need to do it.

The Forest Service responded in 2004 with its biggest stewardship contract ever. The White Mountain Stewardship Project aims to do basic restoration on as many as 150,000 acres in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest by 2014. Financially, it works in the opposite way of stewardship contracts in the Northern Rockies, where companies pay for timber and do restoration as part of the deal. There are only a few Arizona companies today that have any use for raw materials from forests, and the products they make are not worth much. So the Forest Service began paying those stewardship loggers about $420, on average (and sometimes as much as $1,000), for each acre treated.

If the average price holds, that contract alone could cost the Forest Service a total of $63 million, and the product doesn't seem worth it: Most of the small trees are ground up to make fuel pellets for wood stoves. The full restoration of Arizona's ponderosa-pine ecosystem could cost as much as $1 billion, because it would require work on springs and other features, as well as thinning up to a million acres on four national forests.

Yet that's the goal of one of the West's most ambitious collaborative efforts, the Four Forest Restoration Initiative. It includes scientists, politicians, environmentalists and agencies, who are devising restoration prescriptions and plans for how to pay for it all. Ecologists such as Wally Covington, head of the Forest Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University, have tested restoration techniques for decades and see their work as part of a long-term experiment: "We'll learn our way through this. We'll make some mistakes, and (the lessons) will be passed on to future projects," Covington says.

Ethan Aumack, the Grand Canyon Trust's point man in the 4-FRI effort, has a master's degree in landscape-scale restoration and says there's a "need to set up new planning models" to do environmental-impact statements on 100,000 acres per year. The Forest Service would have to ramp up its staffing and budget, perhaps ultimately kicking in $300 million as its share of the total price, he estimates, which might require congressional appropriations. "It's a new deal for everyone here, including the Forest Service," Aumack says. "It's never been tried before."

That explains the historic occasion on April 22: The Center for Biological Diversity and the Grand Canyon Trust signed a deal with timber entrepreneur Pascal Berlioux. Berlioux's company, Arizona Forest Restoration Products, hopes to do restoration work on at least 600,000 acres over 20 years, cutting only trees that are smaller than 16 inches in diameter. In turn, the Center promises not to file lawsuits against his work, and to defend it in court if other groups sue.

Berlioux says he won't need a subsidy. He plans to raise $250 million to build a plant to turn the pine thickets into a high-value product called oriented strand board (OSB). Made of wood chips, OSB has replaced plywood as the main sheathing for houses. There are no OSB plants in the West, and Berlioux hopes to profit by selling OSB sheets to millions of customers in Phoenix, Las Vegas and Southern California. Raised in France, he has a master's degree and a doctorate in business administration, and speaks English with a strong accent: "We dove into zees theeg called collaborashun."

Berlioux says he had investors lined up, but they backed out when the economy collapsed last fall. Still, he predicts that the economy will recover soon, and "socially conscious investors" will like the idea of making a profit on restoring the pine ecosystem.

Jerry Payne, a Forest Service staffer who's received dozens of industry proposals to build plants to process the thickets, says, "I'm certain Pascal can make a go of it."

This originally appeared in High Country News (, which covers the West's communities and natural-resource issues from Paonia, Colo.