Ted Simons: Tonight's focus on sustainability looks at forest thinning in Arizona. ASU and the Nature Conservancy teamed up to study ways to create sustainable, economically viable methods for thinning small diameter trees. Dan O'Neill is with ASU's Walton sustainability solutions initiatives, and Patrick Graham is state director of the Nature Conservancy in Arizona. Good to see you both here. Good to talk about this, because it feels like we've talked about this in the past with the forest initiative, what exactly did your study look at?
Dan O’Neill: We were asked by the Nature Conservancy to look at the economic viability of creating an industry around small diameter wood. The forest products industry kind of died in Arizona a number of years ago, and this is about the rebirth of such an industry.
Ted Simons: How small in diameter are we talking about?
Dan O’Neill: Up to inches in general.
Ted Simons: And as far as the impact on the forest health, getting rid of these smaller trees, it's a biggie isn't it?
Patrick Graham: Yeah. We've lost a million acres, a quarter of our forests to fire in a decade. And it's not only impacting the wildlife in the forest, but it also impacts our water supplies.
Ted Simons: And again, these things which may not have been there in the past because low-grade fires would have knocked them out, they're all over the place.
Patrick Graham: We really -- We had historically a mature ponderosa forest might have 40-50 trees an acre and today we have hundreds up to a thousand trees per acre.
Ted Simons: Who wants these small trees? One of the problems I know from doing stories on this over the years, loggers, folks in the business, wood business, they don't want the little ones, and they want the big trees. What are we doing here?
Dan O’Neill: Big aspect of building a new industry cluster around small-diameter wood is market development. There's a variety of different uses of small-diameter wood. What needs to happen is building more markets for that kind of product. One example is post and pole. That's a niche that some manufacturers or some log processors have found in the southwest for small-diameter wood.
Ted Simons: And processed woods, saw dust, that kind of thing?
Dan O’Neill: There's a wide variety of uses, and in fact forest products industry has been -- Always been good at using the whole log, everything from the log, so it ranges from everything from the lumber that comes from the small-diameter wood down to the slash that comes from the cutting process that can be used in things like energy generation processes.
Ted Simons: And mentioned the four forest initiative, it seemed like it stalled out in mid-flight, now it's getting -- Is this similar to that initiative? Compare and contrast.
Patrick Graham: This is a piece of that. There was a period where it was uncertain whether or not this is going to be economically viable. Without industry, the four forested initiative would not be able to move forward because government would have to pay potentially hundreds of millions if not billions of dollars. So we wanted to move forward and verify that in fact this is economic -- Can be done economically viable, and that's why we went to the school of sustainability.
Ted Simons: So how is it economically viable? What has changed? Where is the market and why aren't they doing it now?
Dan O’Neill: As a matter of fact, they are beginning to do it now. What's needed is a cluster approach. Where you have a variety of different uses for log, and you can realize value from everything from the larger log down to the slash that results from -- So the key is building a cluster, and there are a couple of clusters that we modeled that are emerging along the rim now.
Ted Simons: I guess the idea is the goal is to get business in there to replace -- We pay -- The forest service pays folks to do this kind of business, right?
Dan O’Neill: Yeah. They have paid several dollars a ton to help clear the forest, but what we saw from modeling it was that it's viable, it's possible to actually eliminate subsidy from the forest service.
Ted Simons: Is it viable? Is it possible to get these these small-diameter trees out of there and not damage the forest with roads, A, and B not take out a bunch of big trees in the process?
Patrick Graham: Yes, I think clearly the study supported the fact that we can do this without subsidies, and -- Which is going to be essential. We need -- The four forest initiative is proposing to do up to a million acres. It's really the largest project of its kind in the nation. And not only is it challenging from an economic perspective, but we also have to maintain the public trust in order to be able to move this forward. So there are a lot of other creative things that are going on, and maybe we can talk about that on another program. Yeah, there's no question that this can move forward. The environmental impact statement should be wrapped up this summer, and with that the companies should be able to move forward with their investments and get this going.
Ted Simons: A few seconds left. Response so far from this?
Dan O’Neill: It's been a lot of interest. People -- It's a hopeful kind of message, and people are intrigued by it. They've been watching their forests burn for a few years, and would like to see that end.
Ted Simons: We'll see where the study takes us. It's good to have you both here.