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Moving it forward: YF&R focuses on fire prevention

Issue Date: October 20, 2021
By Ching Lee
Shasta County timber operator Zane Peterson says a focus of his work has been in fuel-reduction projections, including clearing small trees and other forest materials that increase fire hazard.
Photo/Courtesy Zane Peterson

More frequent wildfires have created a niche for some timber companies, and operators such as Zane Peterson have built their business on fuel reduction and salvage work.

Loggers still would rather cut trees, process them into logs and deliver them to sawmills to make lumber, the Shasta County timber operator said. But the severity and growing number of wildfires in recent years have increased demand for clearing smaller trees and forest growth.

"That's how it kind of evolved," Peterson said of the timber business.

To reduce fuel load, his company, Peterson Timber, removes small, suppressed trees "that are not worth anything" and chips them for use in biomass-fired power plants. Brush that can't be chipped is masticated with machinery that mows the forest floor. He also performs post-fire logging to salvage timber before it rots.

Peterson's more traditional timber work includes delivering logs to Anderson-based Sierra Pacific Industries' various sawmills throughout Northern California.

He maintains contracts with the U.S. Forest Service to harvest timber through 2023. However, with so much burnt timber on the market, he said he has not been able to operate any of those sales.

"The mills are inundated with logs from their lands or other large industrial landowners that have been burned over the last few years," he said.

Focus on wildfire prevention has made fuel reduction a priority, he said, as there is "an abundance of that work that needs to be done."

Despite growing demand for such services, Peterson said there's still a limited market for a lot of the woody material generated from fuel-reduction work as sawmills try to process more post-fire logs.

"The salvage wood is what's plugging up the market," he said. "It's actually hurt us because it is reducing our opportunity to sell material to the sawmills."

Because utilities such as Pacific Gas and Electric Co. have been removing more hazard trees that could start fires, it leaves less capacity for power plants to take material from fuel-reduction projects, slowing that process, Peterson added.

"Our biggest challenge is the lack of markets," he said.

Peterson grew up in Redding and became exposed to the timber industry by going to the woods with his grandfather, a forester, and his uncle, who works in the lumber business. When he started working for a sawmill buying logs, he "quickly realized that the loggers were aging quickly and just saw a lot of opportunity," especially in forest management, fuel reduction and logging, he said. This led him to start his company about five years ago.

Even though there's a need for more fuel reduction, Peterson said lack of funding has made it difficult for private landowners to pursue those projects.

"It costs them to do the work," he said. "It takes the right situation to get in and get the funding in order to be able to do the work."

Grants are available, he added, "but we need to get the money to the grounds to do the work."

With a torrent of salvaged wood clogging mills and limited outlet for fuel-reduction material, Peterson said the industry remains in "recovery mode instead of being proactive."

"We need to get ahead of these fires, and we need to increase our fuel-reduction acres so that when we do have wildfires, we can effectively fight them and stop them," he said.

Peterson tackles such issues as part of the Farm Bureau Forestry Advisory Committee, which works on ways to increase the pace and scale of fuel-reduction projects and to develop more markets for lower-value woody materials that need to be removed from forests.

He got involved with Farm Bureau when he joined the Butte County Young Farmers and Ranchers program while attending California State University, Chico. He said the program not only provided networking opportunities but also a chance to see different agricultural businesses in the region.

"Through my involvement with YF&R," Peterson said, "it bolstered my involvement in Farm Bureau today."

(Ching Lee is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at clee@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.




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