Arizona’s forests are in degraded health. They are overly dense and prone to disturbances like catastrophic fire, drought, and insect outbreaks. Restoration activities can reduce the risk of severe fire and post-fire flooding, however, small-diameter trees and biomass thinned from the forests to improve forest health have little to no market value, and there is limited forest products industry capacity in the region. The lack of industry and forest product markets has led to delayed large-scale forest restoration efforts.
At the same time, many homes on the Navajo Nation and Hopi Reservation in northern Arizona are not connected to the power grid and rely on coal and wood for home heating. The closure of the Navajo Generating Station and the associated coal mine in 2019 left many tribal members vulnerable to energy uncertainty, and Covid exacerbated this home-heating crisis. Transitioning homes from coal to firewood for heating and cooking is feasible as a transitional fuel source, and forest restoration on National Forest System lands can generate an abundant fuelwood supply. However, connecting the dots from forest restoration projects to woodstoves in tribal communities is complex.
To address these challenges, organizations from across the state have come together through the Wood for Life program to facilitate delivery of a sustainable and substantial amount of firewood to tribal partners from forest restoration projects on forest system lands. The goals of Wood for Life are to provide a long-term source of firewood to local tribes through forest restoration efforts; to reduce forest-wide fuels; and to strengthen relationships.
In response to the closure of the generating station and increasing demand for firewood, local national forests began hosting field trips to support tribal wood collection efforts, but transportation of wood was a barrier. In early 2020, the National Forest Foundation began working to coordinate partners and raise funds to pilot efforts to transport wood, with an eye toward relationship building, overcoming challenges, and managing costs associated with transportation. Whole logs were delivered to several tribal communities where they were cut by local volunteers and distributed to community members.
Since these initial efforts, interest and momentum in Wood for Life has steadily grown. The program now consists of a network of more than 20 partners that collectively have supplied, delivered, and processed about 1,500 cords of wood in one year.
In order maintain this momentum, the Wood for Life network is focusing on three main elements:
1. Wood Supply
Through Wood for Life, wood supply has been provided by restoration projects administered by national forests and agreements with implementation partners. The national forests identified the wood supplies on forest system lands and connected those sources to tribal partners through a variety of scales, agreement types, and authorities. During the Covid pandemic, the national forests provided free firewood tags through existing authorities. The Forest Service is now developing new authorities specific to tribal use of wood, and forests will need to determine appropriate limits. Forest system agreements with partners helped expand the scale of Wood for Life, however, these agreements require a partner with the necessary capacity, funding, and objectives in place to implement restoration work and facilitate distribution.
The costs and logistics of transporting small-diameter trees from national forests to the Navajo Nation and Hopi Reservation emerged as key barriers. Numerous transportation methods can be used, each with varying costs and efficiencies. Sustained transportation support is a key challenge to facilitating Wood for Life. Transportation needs include equipment, volunteers, funding, and business models that support tribal community economy and investment. Firewood transportation and loading equipment are also needed. Unloading equipment could allow standard log trucks to be unloaded on tribal lands. Partner organizations have helped meet needs, but longer-term solutions are needed.
3. Processing and Distribution
Once wood is delivered to communities, it needs to be processed and distributed. Tribal partners in local communities determine where the wood is unloaded and stored. It is cut into smaller lengths and split by volunteers or paid crews, like crews from the Ancestral Lands Conservation Corps. Since firewood is an extremely valuable resource on tribal lands, partnership and leadership from tribal communities is essential to navigate and develop equitable processes on the ground and to communicate strategies within the Wood for Life partnership. Increasing capacity for processing and distribution, including unloading and splitting equipment, will help sustain and scale up the Wood for Life effort.
The Wood for Life network partners are working diligently to build capacity and scale up efforts, and exploring longer-term, innovative solutions, including sustained funding support and various business models. There are several potential opportunities to use existing policy, funding, and incentive mechanisms to sustain and expand Wood for Life, and next steps are to establish commitments for wood supply and processing, to expand training for firewood project development, to conduct strategic planning with tribal governments, and to explore national policy and funding opportunities. To learn more, go to: https://www.nationalforests.org/regional-programs/southernrockies/wood-for-life-tribal-fuelwood-initiative
Sasha Stortz is Arizona program manager for the National Forest Foundation. Melanie Colavito, PhD, is director of policy and communication for the Ecological Restoration Institute, Northern Arizona University.
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