Forest restoration project coming to Flagstaff

A new sawmill facility is being built in Bellemont, Arizona which is about 11 miles outside Flagstaff. 

Good Earth Power AZ and its operations company, New Life Forest Products, recently purchased a sawmill in Bellemont, 11 miles outside Flagstaff. This will ultimately bring in over 150 jobs to the region, as well as aid in improving forest health to combat the growing threat of wildfires, Coconino County director of forest operations Jay Smith said.

This facility will, in part, work with the United States Forest Service and several stakeholders to improve on the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI), a program that seeks to reduce wildfire risk, improve watershed health, protect wildlife habitats and bolster the forest’s defense against climate change. 

Over the course of the past few decades, wildfires in the region have become increasingly catastrophic. Last year alone was one of the driest years in northern Arizona. 

The National Weather Service reported only 9.59 inches of precipitation, 12 inches below average, making 2020 the fifth-warmest year on record.

The need for forest restoration in Arizona was kickstarted by the Rodeo-Chediski Fire in 2002 and the subsequent wildfires in the following years, Smith said. 

“These catastrophic wildfires grew larger than we have ever seen before, mainly due to dry conditions and too many trees through lack of industry and lack of management,” Smith said. 

Smith described the 2010 Schultz Fire as the tipping point that truly exposed the importance of restoring the forest to its natural state.

In order to combat these threats, 4FRI began projects, which included tree-thinning in overcrowded areas, forest floor cleanup, protection of the watershed and improvement upon overall forest health and management. 

NAU professor of forest operations Han-Sup Han said if the sawmill is up and running as planned, it will create a market for wood and biomass, which will continue to bolster 4FRI’s goals and the local economy.

“We are doing the best we can ... but we can do more,” Han said. “The problem is, if there is no market for the material, we are not going to be able to implement forest restoration.”

The 4FRI concluded that through a tree-thinning project and a surplus of timber for sale, it would bring investors or industry to the area that would be able to meet the tree-thinning goal of 30,000 acres per year over the course of 10 years.

Good Earth Power AZ seemed to fulfill the 4FRI’s wishes as they capitalized on the market, acquiring the new facility in Bellemont. While the 4FRI’s efforts provide the wood for the sawmill, the machine itself provides the manpower needed to utilize the material and, in turn, fuel forest restoration in the region.

Smith said the sawmill is critical to forest restoration and explained the market has always been there, but there has been no industry to consume the wood produced until now. 

“I could see it easily being 100 to 150 jobs, and they’re not low-paying jobs,” Smith said. “Building the mill itself is one phase of the project, and once you have the mill running, you have to have the manpower to run the machines, handle the forklifts and move the lumber.”

New Life Forest Products stated operations will begin in late March, setting in motion the process of economic growth and forest restoration.

On the engineering and contracting side, NAU graduates will add valuable contributions to the project. Adam Cooley, general manager of New Life Forest Operations, further highlights the facility’s impact on the local economy.

“We intend to hire out of NAU and have been working with Han-Sup Han toward this end,” Cooley said. “Where possible, we will hire local businesses, which should be for the vast majority of the work we do.”

Even if this facility is not entirely directed at NAU’s forestry program, the forest restoration project as a whole provides valuable opportunities for students who may be interested in this field.

Overall, the new forest restoration project has the ability to serve the local economy, job growth and forest health, as well as provide valuable opportunities for forestry majors at NAU.