‘Wood for Life’ project provides work, warmth, and well-being
A fuelwood initiative is helping the environment, economy, and tribal communities near Flagstaff, Arizona, with support from Wells Fargo.
Wells Fargo is helping fuel a collaboration between parts of Navajo Nation, the Hopi Tribe, the National Forest Foundation, and the USDA Forest Service that promotes stewardship of the land and care for communities.
To restore forest health and reduce fire and flood risk for national forests near Flagstaff, Arizona, and the Grand Canyon, the National Forest Foundation and the USDA Forest Service work to remove some of the smaller trees from the overgrown forests. This work improves the health of the Coconino and Kaibab National Forests by decreasing their density, which reduces the risk of accelerating forest fires. It can also slow erosion due to post-fire floods.
The forest work is taking place a few hours from the western edge of Navajo and Hopi reservations, which are located on low-elevation, generally treeless land bordered by high-elevation pine forests.
Milton Tso, president of the Cameron chapter of Navajo Nation, which is one of the communities in the area, was aware of the forestry work. He is also keenly aware of the needs of his community, which experiences dramatic cold fronts during the winter and frequently uses wood for fuel and warmth.
“The elders, they are usually cold all the time during the winter,” Tso said. “Like my grandma, she burns wood all day long. She gets a little colder due to her age. Some elders have propane, but if they don’t, they also use wood to cook, so their wood supplies don’t last long.”
Wood has been in especially high demand in recent years, after a local coal operation shut down, cutting off access to coal as a fuel option, and taking jobs with it as well.
“So we have both a source of wood, and a need for firewood in tribal communities, but one of the challenges was working to connect the two,” said Sasha Stortz, Arizona program manager of the National Forest Foundation. “Partners have been absolutely essential for getting this done.”
Tso approached the forest organizations with the idea for the fuelwood initiative, which is receiving support from Wells Fargo. The program is solving the logistical challenge of processing the trees and transporting them to help supply communities with firewood through the tribal fuelwood initiative, known as “Wood for Life.” Tribal community members have contributed by splitting the logs into the appropriate sizes to make cords of firewood. Native youth, through the Ancestral Lands program, gain job skills while cutting and delivering the wood.
Wells Fargo has played a role in funding the Ancestral Lands crews, as well as the transport and delivery of the wood, which is stoking the continuation of the effort. It is seen as a “triple opportunity” to help local communities, according to Katie Campana of Wells Fargo Community Relations, since it serves environmental and economic needs, while also promoting community well-being.
“The wood is being provided at no cost, which is so important, especially right now,” Stortz said. “It is time-intensive to gather fuelwood, with people having to travel 100 miles or more to be able to access firewood. Plus, it’s costly to purchase. For some folks, expenses of time and extra money are a hardship, especially as communities address some of the intense economic challenges that COVID has brought.”
Cameron, for instance, is known as a gateway to the Grand Canyon, and with local tourism experiencing a pandemic-related downturn, small businesses are closing, and unemployment is rampant.
“Definitely, economically, we have been affected quite a bit,” said Tso. “That is why this is really helpful.”
Once the wood arrives on tribal lands, members of the community work to distribute the wood directly to people who need it by loading it on trucks and taking it to homes. The priority goes to providing for elders who are in remote parts of the reservation. “Volunteering keeps us busy, and having local access to wood, right here at the chapter, relieves stress,” Tso said. “Especially if you have no money for the cost of fuel to drive the two hours to and from the forests to get wood.”
The program has so far provided more than 300 cords of wood to communities, and that is expected to double by the end of 2020.
“My goal is to try to protect, especially our elders,” Tso said. “To keep them from venturing to Flagstaff for their needs as much as possible during COVID and keep them safe.
“I would also like to open this up to other chapters. So a big thank you to all the donors that make this possible.”