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Wood for Life project helps thin Arizona forests, fuel Native American communities

Coverage of tribal natural resources is supported in part by Catena Foundation

An excess of one thing and a need for another has led to a unique solution in northern Arizona. The program has found a use for unusable wood products and provides training for many young Native Americans. The Wood for Life project is helping Arizona forests while also providing fuel for Native American communities in several other Western states.

A few miles west of Flagstaff, about a mile and a half off Interstate 40, on a dirt road in the Coconino National Forest, past campsites and joggers running through the trees, it’s not just the wind you hear.

Several crews of young adults are cutting up downed trees, hauling them out of the forest to a site where other crews are sawing them into 15-foot logs, and then into smaller pieces and handing them off to others who are loading those pieces into log splitters, where they are broken into chunks of firewood.

The piles of firewood are made available to Navajo and Hopi tribal members who arrive in pickups to haul away the wood, which is used for cooking and heating in the winter months. If not cut, smaller trees, which are too small for logging purposes, add fuel to forest fires, so the thinning serves multiple purposes. 

Marshall Masayesva is the Hopi coordinator for the Ancestral Lands Conservation Corps. 

"We’re an indigenous-specific conservation corps that operates within our communities," Masayesva said. 

Masayesva says the young people learn valuable skills and certifications that they can add to a resume. He says the training and experience can provide opportunities for tribal youth who may have limited opportunities on the reservation. He says it is important for tribal members to see firsthand what is happening.

"So when they’re parked up here waiting in line they can see these young people operating in a professional light and see the operation and see this is really something, this is much bigger than we thought it was," he said. 

Ancestral Lands, the National Forest Foundation and the U.S. Forest Service are all working together with the Wood for Life Program. The areas are broken up into 30- to 50-acre sites.

"You go in that unit and go all around and whatever is not marked, that’s your trees," said Elise Sawa with the U.S. Forest Service.

"The Wood for Life phase 2 is for 10 years and there we’re doing phase three and that’ll be for 10 years, too. Once I get everyone up to full speed with all their equipment, I think it’ll take us about a year to get through all of this Unit 4," Sawa said. 

The Navajo Generating Station, a coal-fired power plant near Page, operated for nearly half a century before it was closed.

"In 2019, the coal mine shut down that heats most of their homes, so we did have that need. We don’t have this type of energy anymore," Sawa said. 

But there was other fuel available.

"We have some wood that is not useful or it can’t be sold, so it was just sitting there, so we found kind of a use for it," Sawa said. 

Larger trees are marked to be saved and smaller trees targeted to be cut. Smaller branches and brush are mulched. The logs are cut into firewood and this year some of the larger logs are being used for posts that can be used for building. Wood from other thinning projects around the state is also trucked up to the Hopi and Navajo reservations for those who can’t make the trip down to this site.

Nearby, Hali Lauren Lomayesva, a member of the Hopi Tribe, is standing by to flag down arriving pickup trucks and direct them to a woodpile. She has been with Ancestral Lands for six years. She says it’s been a great opportunity.

"I just want to give back and show our youth there’s more to life and other careers rather than a regular typical job, that they can pursue something that’s unique and give back to our people and the land in a different way," Lomayesva said. 

Down the road, Dustin Begay, who is from the Navajo Reservation, and his crew are taking a break. He’s been with the program two years. He says the experience has already led to other opportunities.

"When you get that you can move on like what I did, I moved into wildland firefighting, and I was a sawyer as well, on a hotshot crew. And I came back to perfect my skills here," Begay said. 

Forest thinning, fuel for tribes, experience and training for young people are all coming together in the Wood for Life Program in Arizona’s forests.

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Al Macias, former KJZZ news director, is part of an elite class of trusted, veteran journalists who have covered Arizona news for more than 30 years.