ADOT Hopes Pilot Project Could Help Speed Up Forest Restoration Efforts

By Carrie Jung
Published: Wednesday, December 10, 2014 - 6:06pm
Updated: Thursday, December 11, 2014 - 3:53pm
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(Photo by Carrie Jung - KJZZ)
Crews separate timber from biomass at the logging site in the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest

The Arizona Department of Transportation is testing a new pilot project that allows timber trucks to haul more weight on some state roads.

The idea has people in the timber industry excited, but critics say programs promoting commercial logging efforts don’t focus enough on habitat protection.

On a damp winter morning, logger Steve Reidhead navigated his large white pickup truck down a narrow forest road on his way to the Mogollon Rim to join the rest of his team. Once on site, he gave me a quick tour of his operation.

"So that’s your hot saw," said Reidhead as he pointed to a large diesel-powered machine. "That cuts it and puts it into piles like this."

Reidhead is a fifth-generation logger, and he’s been running his company, Tri Star logging, for almost 30 years. But he said the business isn’t for the faint of heart. It’s labor-intensive, and profit margins are slim.

"The nature of what we do is very heavily equipment invested," he said.

Right now, Reidhead’s team is in the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest in eastern Arizona, working with the Forest Service to remove select small-diameter trees from the area. It’s one of several forest-thinning projects the agency is involved with around the state, with the goal of reducing the risk of catastrophic or extreme wildfire. But the partnership can often be a delicate balance, because small trees and the biomass they create aren’t exactly big moneymakers for loggers.

"So we worked with the Eastern Arizona Counties Organization to come up with a solution," said Dustin Krugel, ADOT spokesman.

He said a new pilot project allowing timber trucks to take almost 11,000 pounds of additional weight on some state roads in eastern Arizona could help.

"By increasing this, it's going to allow the timber industry to clear more forests and make it more profitable for them to do this," Krugel said.

That’s a lot of extra weight on the pavement, but Krugel said ADOT will be monitoring wear and tear on the roads. He admitted that it could end up being a potential cost for the state because the extra weight may require the agency to repair or repave roads sooner than usual. 

But right now, officials are considering the move to be more of an investment because each catastrophic wildfire can cause millions of dollars in damage to the state’s transportation infrastructure, he said.

"We had the Wallow Fire in 2011," he said. "We had $2.5 million worth of damages related to the fire between road damage, fence damage, ditch-cleaning. It runs the gamut." 

Arizona State University agribusiness economist Jeff Englin said he thinks of this type of an investment as an insurance policy.

"They’re going to thin the forest, reduce the risk that they’re going to have a catastrophic expense in the future," he said. "And they’ll take a small expense up front. You know, any individual would do that."

The ADOT pilot program is part of a larger project called the Healthy Forest Initiative which is a collaboration between multiple state and local organizations like the State Forestry Division and the Eastern Arizona Counties Organization.

But for Sierra Club Grand Canyon Chapter Director Sandy Bahr, plans like this often focus too much on commercial interests and not enough on restoring natural processes into an overgrown forest area, such as prescribed burns.

"If you have logging and then you have overgrazing, and you have no fire, you have unhealthy forests, so we need to shift the focus for promoting the commercial aspects and really focus on ecological restoration," she said.

She said trucks taking heavier loads on delicate forest roads could also lead to increased erosion.

Bahr said forest restoration relying on commercial loggers is a good idea in theory, but added that they often lack a sufficient focus on habitat protection.

"We would like to see a plan developed that is more sustainable," she said. 

The pilot project was launched in November. And while it's still too early to tell exactly how it will affect both state and forest roads, Reidhead, the logger, said he's starting to see an impact on his bottom line.

Updated at 11:42 a.m. on 12/11/14.

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