UniSource Energy Services is partnering with The Nature Conservancy to increase the pace of forest thinning to restore forest health and reduce the risk of fire.

The Nature Conservancy is in the midst of a decade-long stewardship agreement with the U.S. Forest Service, supported by UniSource funding. The project, which spans 20,000 acres of forest lands, is designed to test new business practices and new forest management technology, particularly in areas dominated by small diameter timber with low market value.

Pat Graham, State Director for The Nature Conservancy, noted that Arizona’s forests evolved with natural fire, in which low-intensity grass fires helped create more open forests. Fire suppression policies changed that dynamic. “There’s a great deal of urgency around this issue. Our forests are incredibly vulnerable. We lost 25 percent of the Ponderosa pine forest in Arizona between 2001 and 2011. This is an issue we have to move quickly on and it’s one we have to scale. We can’t solve this a couple of acres at a time.”

To support the program, the Forest Service doubled the amount of acreage available for thinning in Northern Arizona. In all, nearly 1,500 acres were thinned across five management areas. New technologies, meanwhile, such as digital tree mapping instead of physically marking trees for harvest, resulted in a 10-fold increase in efficiency.

While old growth trees are protected, the lowest value trees are harvested and sold in traditional wood-products markets, including as pallet stock, as well as for biomass energy and the manufacturing of soil amendment products, such as mulch.

“We’re proud of the impact of this project, from benefiting the economy, to strengthening partnerships and helping reduce overall costs for the Forest Service. Ultimately, reimagining some management practices will help increase the pace of forest restoration throughout the western U.S. in its entirety,” Graham said. “We are grateful for the vision and support of UniSource in helping us achieve some of these goals.”

Graham noted that streams and rivers could benefit from fewer trees competing for groundwater. Thinning overly dense, young trees eliminates fuel sources that burn hotter in forest fires. Fewer fires in turn helps keep ash and sediment out of existing streams and reservoirs.

“This project demonstrates the effectiveness of strategic thinning at a time when the size and severity of fires across the West are on an increase – but as importantly, partners with industry to identify market viability for these smaller trees,” said Erik Bakken, Vice President of System Operations and Energy Resources for UniSource and a board member of The Nature Conservancy. “The health of our forests impacts our communities, and ultimately, our planet as a whole, and we are pleased to be a part of this effort.”

To read more about the project, visit https://www.nature.org/en-us/about-us/where-we-work/united-states/arizona/stories-in-arizona/restoring-arizonas-forests/

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