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White Mountain Apache open door to commercial logging

CIBECUE, Ariz. - The vast stretch of land in northeast Arizona is blackened and quiet. No birds or animals roam these areas which once were living forest. Only the wind sweeps across the dusted ash lands. A foreign sound, however, now rumbles in the distance, the echo of logging trucks and helicopters.

The White Mountain Apache Tribe has opened its lands to the nation's biggest logging companies in its effort to recover from last summer's Rodeo-Chediski wildfire, the largest in Arizona's history. The outside loggers underbid other state and local companies, but also offered the option of helicopter logging.

"Helicopter logging is important due to the soil's fragility within the burnt areas," said Phil Broiller, a Bureau of Land Management (BLM) employee detailed from Boise, Idaho to coordinate aerial operations.

The need for helicopter logging is based on the assessment of the Burned Area Emergency Rehabilitation (BAER) team that was conducted after the wildfire roared through in July. (See related story on C3.)

The BAER plan emphasized stabilization of the soil. Soil erosion remains a top concern.

In the past, outside logging companies faced strings of red tape for work on Indian reservations. This situation, however, warranted unprecedented action. A mortally dangerous combination of wildfire destruction and downward economic spiral, plus the enormous amount of acreage available for salvage operations, prompted the tribe to look at outside options.

"Our first priority was to stabilize the land," said Tribal Chairman Dallas Massey Jr. "Then the tribal council and I reviewed our options of salvage recovery. We realized that the tribe is in an unsecured economic state and eventually, decided to sell parts of the salvage to outside logging companies."

The timber sales are estimated at about 240 million board feet. The Tribe's own logging company, the Fort Apache Timber Company (FATCO) will salvage about 150 million board feet.

Another equity source from these burned areas will be the small tree's remains. According to Chairman Massey, these small trees can be sold and produced into a variety of items such as railroad ties, manufactured pellets for woodstoves, wood blocks for highway railing. The sawdust can also be used to treat the lands or shipped to other off-reservation venues.

The logging companies that won the bid for the sales are Sierra Pacific Industries of Anderson, Calif. and TCB Construction of Poplarville, Miss.

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The outside logging companies are shipping all retrievable logs from the salvage areas in Arizona to their own processing sawmill plants via railroad transportation. Temporary rail stations are located at Globe, Ariz. and Holbrook, Ariz.

The shipped cargo will be scaled down to meet specific board feet for building homes, cabinets, furniture and other uses. At first glance, the outside logging companies are transporting loads of logs at least 30 or more inches in diameter while FATCO, the tribe's company, is moving much smaller logs. The size difference comes from the ability of the large companies to use helicopters to pick up and transport charred logs located in rugged terrain. FATCO doesn't have this capability.

The companies are using helispots, sections of earth carefully cleared by bulldozers or by hand, for their operations. These are landing pads for the helicopters to refuel or use as a temporary docking station. "Each helispot established for the helicopter logging operations had to be in areas where impact would be insignificant, such as an existing road or cleared surroundings," said BLM agent Broiller.

On a visit to a salvage area, Chinook helicopters fly overhead, hovering over sawyers down below. A team of two sawyers is airlifted or hikes into the steep drainages. Once there, the loggers hike to each marked or flagged timber and begin cutting.

Each timber has either been flagged or marked for salvage by timber sales management drawn from the BIA and White Mountain Forestry department.

Two huge logs suddenly appear overhead. They are being airlifted to another crew of sawyers and heavy equipment operators at loading spots, who prepare and load the logs for transport.

Three helicopters are operating in the area, but the logging company will bring in at least 11 more in the future.

All retrievable timber will be logged and completed within two years. The damaged soil and erosion will remain an item of concern until vegetation becomes visible in the spring.

In retrospect, a total of 276,512 acres were burnt on the reservation alone. An estimated 60 percent of the Rodeo-Chediski wildfire ravaged through the tribe's timber.

Currently, 29,000 acres of charred trees are being logged and leaving the reservation forever.