White Mountain Stewardship

White Mountain Stewardship Project's Multi-Party Monitoring Board

The Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests and the White Mountain Stewardship Project's Multi-Party Monitoring Board are pleased to share with stakeholders this report entitled "Evaluating the Impacts of Forest Treatments: The First Five Years of the White Mountain Stewardship Project." The White Mountain Stewardship Project is the first and only 10-year stewardship contract in the nation, and is designed to restore forest health, reduce the risk of wildfire to communities, reduce the cost of forest thinning to taxpayers, support local economies and encourage new wood product industries and uses for the thinned wood fiber. This report is an analysis and assessment of the administrative, ecological, economic, and social monitoring data collected between 2005 and 2009. The development of this report was made possible through a partnership between the Forest Service and The Nature Conservancy.

 Evaluating the Impacts of Forest Treatments: The First Five Years of the White Mountain Stewardship Project.
 

Contract Overview — Background

In August 2004 the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests awarded a 10-year Stewardship Contract to thin 150,000 acres of primarily small-diameter ponderosa pine trees, emphasizing WUI areas surrounding communities in the White Mountains of Arizona.  The contract was awarded to Future Forest, LLC, a local partnership of WB Contracting and Forest Energy Corporation. This Stewardship contract is designed to restore forest health, reduce the risk of fire to communities, reduce the cost of forest thinning to taxpayers, support local economies and encourage new wood product industries and uses for the thinned wood fiber.

Collaboration with state and local organizations, citizen groups, conservation organizations and other stakeholders is critical and on-going for the Forests.  In 1997 a diverse group of community members formed the Natural Resources Working Group to build consensus on forest restoration.  The Arizona Sustainable Forest Partnership remains an important discussion group with wood product industry representatives.  Community Wildfire Protection Plans covering all of the communities near the Forests are complete and prioritize forest restoration treatments.  Collaboration with citizens, other agencies, academics, communities and conservation groups has resulted in progress toward shared forest health and community protection goals.  

Healthy Forests and Revitalized Rural Communities

The 10-year guaranteed supply of wood fiber enables wood product businesses to invest in equipment designed specifically to treat and mill small diameter wood. Several USDA Forest Products Laboratory grants of $250,000 each have been awarded to White Mountains-based businesses in the last few years. These grants are a vital source of "seed money" to purchase equipment and Thinning project that shows sparse vegetation where small-diameter trees have been removed.  technologies to utilize and manufacture value-added products from small-diameter wood. The federal funds invested in these enterprises reduce the cost of forest restoration treatments and make landscape-scale treatments possible. Products created locally from the thinned wood fiber include wood pellets for home and industrial heating, animal bedding and compost materials, wood moulding, structural lumber, pallets, paneling, specialty wood products, and biomass to generate electricity. The Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests received the Governor's Award for Excellence in Rural Economic Development in August, 2006.

The Stewardship legislation authorizes the USDA Forest Service to convene a multi-party community monitoring board tasked with assessing the economic, social and ecological impact of the contract. Collaboration with stakeholders fosters understanding, incorporates the ever-growing body of science concerning our environment and results in better forest management. It also affords an opportunity to monitor landscape level issues not covered in project level monitoring. This allows the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests to incorporate adaptive management over the life of the 10-year Stewardship project.

Challenges 

The biggest challenge is funding the task orders each year. The minimum contract guarantee is for 5,000 acres each year; however, we would like to thin at least 15,000 acres each year. Under the White Mountains Stewardship contract, the price of mechanical thinning per acre is lower than it was previously, yet is still a challenge due to our declining annual budgets.

We have met with members of the wood products industry, Arizona Sustainable Forest Products, Northern Arizona Wood Products Association, Northern Arizona University and the Ecological Restoration Institute, members of several conservation organizations and the Governor’s Forest Health Task Group to discuss the potential for attracting larger industry into Northern Arizona, which could pay more for the 5" — 12" diameter material. The guaranteed wood supply of the contract has attracted several larger industry proposals, but they would all need at least twice the wood supply that the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests alone could produce. It is time to look at a larger scale of wood utilization that would include 4-5 forests and tribes.

The Northern Arizona Wood Supply Study is a collaborative partnership between all the interests listed above, with public involvement, to see what potentials there are for landscape level treatments. The idea would be to have a larger player, such as an oriented strand board manufacturer, that could help underwrite thinning costs, while still preserving wood supply for the community-based wood products industries that we have already attracted.

Stewardship Contracting Considerations

The Apache-Sitgreaves National Forests feels that part of our national role is to share what we have learned with other forests and regions who are considering using stewardship contracting as a tool for forest management. Because of this, several line and staff officers have given presentations at countless workshops and conferences and have made service trips to help other regions and tribes. Long-term stewardship contracting can be useful and successful in other locations where you have strong public support and partnerships and commitment from industry to work in a collaborative environment.

Stewardship contracting is a very good tool in certain situations:

  • Where the value of the wood products is low and the treatment costs are greater than the wood product values, especially where small diameter trees need to be removed,
  • Where factors other than cost of treatment per acre need to be considered, such as contribution to local economic development, wood product utilization, past performance, or financial feasibility,
  • Where there is a combination of goods (timber, woody biomass) and services (thinning, fuel removal, road repairs) that need to be accomplished, and
  • Where a longer term (up to 10 years) contract or a guarantee of fiber are needed to stimulate the development of industry infrastructure and trust.

Lessons learned from the first 10-year stewardship contract include:

  • Prior to committing to a long-term contract, you must determine that you have community support and acceptance for the treatments.  This may take collaboration and education for a year or more prior to advertising a contract to help ensure that appeals and negative reactions will not derail the project,
  • There needs to be a willingness on all fronts (Forest Service, industry, county and local government) to sit down with conservation organizations and discuss interests and concerns to help avoid crippling appeals, objections and litigation,
  • It is helpful to have some wood products industry in place.  Once industry is gone, the expertise, workforce and equipment needed to treat vegetation are gone. In some cases, industry still exists but they have to retool with harvesting and milling equipment to fit the different size and type of wood provided under the contract.  All parties need to recognize that the contract costs may be higher in the first 3-5 years until the industry infrastructure and workforce training costs have been paid for,
  • It is better to base your bid costs by green tons of vegetation treated rather than by acres treated.  The density, size and type of vegetation may vary widely across the landscape and if contractors bid by the acre, the cost will be higher to factor in the variability.  But the cost of treating a green ton of vegetation is more uniform and will result in a better bid price overall,
  • If you do not have an existing road system in place prior to the contract, the cost of building new roads, acquiring easements and getting social acceptance for new roads can be a significant cost and delay.  If the woody biomass is chipped in the woods and hauled out in chip trucks, the old timber harvest roads may not have the clearance or curve ratios needed for chip trucks and some reconstruction may be needed,
  • Wood product markets and logistics of getting the product to the markets should be explored.  The only way to reduce the cost of treatments is to have someone buy the materials.  Having a wood products industry support group is invaluable to provide marketing, business, grant application and technology support to small local operators.  The Forest Service Forest Products Lab, universities, and Forest Service Researchers may also be of assistance,
  • Look at the scale and longevity of the vegetation treatment needs.  Is the supply short-term, based on an event such as a wildfire or insect outbreak, which would support a temporary industry?  Is there an indefinite and sustainable supply of material for a permanent industry?  Would there be more material available to attract industry if you combined with adjoining units, agencies or tribes?  What are reasonable haul distances for raw materials and products?
  • Do not let the markets or industry dictate the treatment goals unless there is no other way to pay for essential treatments.  Determine the long-term treatment goals and type of vegetation by-products generated and let that determine the suitable industry and products types,
  • A long-term contract may take up all the Forest Service funds available for treatments and it may mean that any industry not involved with the contract will not have wood products offered to them.  Also, if the contract spans more than one county, some communities and counties may get the jobs and mills and some may not.  This could be a social concern.
  • Stewardship contracting requires the formation of a multi-party citizen monitoring board that recommends landscape level monitoring of the project.  This includes social and economic monitoring as well as environmental monitoring.  This board can be a very valuable tool for getting information and education to the communities, continuing collaboration, linking universities and science,  and providing good information for environmental assessments,
  • Community Wildfire Protection Plans are excellent starting points for determining what the community desires are for vegetation treatments.  These plans not only establish the legal wildland urban interface boundary, but they can also help agencies prioritize treatments over time and recommend treatment prescriptions,
  • A long-term stewardship contract is a close partnership between the agency, industry and contractor(s), the communities, elected officials, conservation organizations and others.  All parties need to be willing to be active partners and stay flexible and committed to the long-term goals of vegetation management.