In many parts of the U.S., the months of January and February bring striking winter scenes of mountain peaks blanketed in white snow and streams and reservoirs littered with gray-black ice. Along with winter landscapes, the winter months also bring average temperatures well below freezing. For the people who live in these cold climates, the importance of reliable, affordable home heat becomes dangerously clear.
Wood and woodstoves are used across the U.S. and are especially important in tribal communities. The Census Bureau estimates that 1.9% – or more than 2.3 million households – use wood as a primary heating source. But in counties with a high percentage of tribal communities, that number often exceeds 30% of households. However, like many energy sources, the price of firewood has steadily increased, and some households are finding it increasingly difficult to heat their homes.
Wood For Life
In the Southwest, the Forest Service is working with the National Forest Foundation, Southwestern tribes and other partners as part of the Wood For Life partnership that supplies firewood to Native American communities through forest restoration activities.
Wood For Life operates as a firewood bank, which is modeled after foodbanks, and helps the most vulnerable, like the elderly, stave off the cold by providing firewood at little to no cost. Firewood banks can serve as a lifesaving resource to people who rely on wood to heat their homes, helping to ensure more people have access to the wood fuel they need to stay warm during the cold winter months.
Meeting a Critical Heating Need in Vulnerable Communities
The Wood For Life program is meeting a critical need in Northern Arizona, where the Kayenta coal mine, which provided coal for the Navajo and Hopi communities for decades, closed in 2019. The closure left more than 15,000 Native American homes without a reliable source of heat.
Around the same time as the mine closure, the Coconino National Forest was eager to find a home for the small diameter logs left over from timber harvesting operations and hazardous fuel reduction projects. Historically, small diameter logs and slash are piled in the forest to be burned during the winter, but recent changes in monsoonal flows and weather patterns have made burning these piles challenging. Forest Service staff began researching the possibility of donating this wood to tribes to use for fuel.
According to Coconino National Forest District Timber Staffer Jake Dahlin, donating wood for fuel wasn’t as easy as one might think.
“Federal laws at the time limited the agency’s ability to just give away wood,” he said. “Plus, there were costs involved with gathering, decking and distributing these small diameter logs.”
One financial hurdle was the cost of transporting the wood to a location where tribal members might easily access it. Fortunately, in 2020 the Flagstaff Ranger District was able to get funding that, when combined with additional COVID relief funding, covered some of the cost of transport and processing of the logs into firewood.
Chizh for Cheii (“firewood for grandpa”) and many other groups later became involved in distributing wood directly to tribal members through efforts organized by the City of Flagstaff.
The program quickly grew, and in 2020 over 2,500 cords of firewood – more than $500,000 in mutual aid – was processed and distributed to elders in the Navajo Diné and Hopi community by groups like Chizh for Cheii and Koho for Hopi.
In 2021 Dahlin began a short-term assignment in Colorado on the San Juan National Forest. There he began working with National Forest Foundation, Coconino National Forest, and Native American and youth crews in the Four Corners area, where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah meet. Inspired by the recent successes in Arizona, he saw how these crews could become an integral link in the forest-to-household fuelwood pipeline.
Expanding the Effort
These projects were so successful that the agency has taken steps to replicate them on a larger scale. In 2022 the Forest Service announced investments in firewood banks through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, including funding for Wood For Life, which will ramp up the capacity of firewood banks to provide fuel through work to be completed by groups like Conservation Legacy Native American and youth crews.
The agency has committed to focus on those communities in greatest need of assistance and to locate additional partners to leverage the firewood bank program. The Forest Service is now working with the Ecological Restoration Institute to identify the most vulnerable populations across the Navajo and Hopi Nations that could be effectively served by wood banks. The agency is also partnering with Indigenous partners like the Ancestral Lands Conservation Corp to assist with fuelwood decking, splitting and delivery and with the National Forest Foundation.
“We’re working on an additional Wood For Life agreement with the National Forest Foundation now,” said Dahlin. “We want to explore the possibility of expanding the program to tribal communities in other states.”