The San Juan National Forest has increased the amount of firewood delivered to Navajo Nation as part of the Wood for Life program.
There is a high demand for firewood to heat homes in rural areas of the Navajo, Ute and Hopi reservations after the closure of area coal mines relied on for heating fuel.
A partnership between the National Forest Foundation, national forests and tribes was formed provide firewood at little to no costs.
The timber needed is plentiful in San Juan National Forest, which is conducting restoration projects to thin out overgrown forests at risk for catastrophic wildfire and extreme beetle kill.
“It is a humanitarian program that also helps get rid of hazardous fuels out there,” said David Casey, forester for the San Juan National Forest.
The smaller timber used for firewood had less market value, and may be lost to prescribed burns if not utilized for firewood, he said.
In 2022, 16 semitrailer loads of ponderosa pine logs, equal to about 192 cords, were delivered to the Navajo Nation as part of a pilot program.
This year, 50 semitrailer loads of ponderosa pine logs – 600 cords of firewood – were delivered to the Navajo Nation, including to Chinle and Red Mesa, said David Casey, a forester for the San Juan National Forest.
He said the Wood for Life Program recently was awarded $4 million from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill to help cover costs, including harvesting and delivery of the firewood to tribes. The influx of federal funding will help sustain the program for another five years, Casey said.
There seems to be an endless need for firewood in rural areas on the Navajo reservation, said Colin Tsosie, Chinle Chapter planner. The firewood delivered this year from the San Juan National Forest was dispersed to 1,897 households in Chinle and nearby towns and chapters, he said.
Supplies have already been depleted, and winter is not over. An emergency request was submitted for additional firewood, Casey said, but deep snow have delayed efforts to reach decks of firewood ready to be shipped from the Glade area.
“We’re plowing in, but every time we get closer, it snows again,” he said.
Once the deck is reached 13 additional semitrailer loads of firewood will be delivered to the Chinle area, he said.
A side benefit of the humanitarian program is providing work for local timber operators and haulers, Casey said.
The Chinle Chapter Americorp program deserves a lot of recognition for its work on the Wood for Life program, Tsosie said.
The 13-member Navajo crew saws the logs, splits them, loads them and delivers the cords to households far and wide.
“They are the backbone of the program,” Tsosie said.
A variety of grants helped the Chapter obtain six log splitters, 10 chain saws, axes and other tools to process the firewood.
Wood for Life operates as a firewood bank, modeled after food banks, to assist people vulnerable to winter cold. In addition to the San Juan National Forest, it also works with the Kaibab and Coconino National Forests for timber supply.
The Kayenta coal mine provided coal for Navajo and Hopi communities for decades in northern Arizona. When it shut down in 2019, it left more than 15,000 homes without a reliable source of heat, according to a Forest Service news release.
The Census Bureau estimates that more than 2.3 million households, or 1.9%, use wood as a primary heating source. But in counties with a high percentage of tribal communities, that number often exceeds 30% of households.
The Coconino National Forest saw Wood for Life as an opportunity to find a home for the small diameter logs left over from timber harvesting operations and hazardous fuel reduction projects.
Historically, small diameter logs and slash are piled in the forest to be burned during the winter, according to a Forest Service news release, but drier climate conditions have made burning these piles challenging.
One financial hurdle was the cost of transporting the wood to a location where tribal members might easily access it. In 2020, the Flagstaff Ranger District got funding that, when combined with additional coronavirus relief funding, covered some of the cost of transport and processing of the logs into firewood.
Chizh for Cheii (“firewood for grandpa”) and many other groups later became involved in distributing wood directly to tribal members through efforts organized by the city of Flagstaff.
In 2020, more than 2,500 cords of firewood was processed and distributed to elders in the Navajo Diné and Hopi community by groups like Chizh for Cheii and Koho for Hopi.