On the drive up this narrow and unpredictable red clay dirt road in the Yuba County foothills, you can really get a sense for how wildfires can spread so quickly.

Surrounded by tall pines stretching high into the air, their proximity to one another is a particular reminder of just how easily a fire can ignite and consume any given area.

Near the end of the road you’ll see a small clearing and then a few feet more you’ll come to an even bigger clearing where a large machine amassing a near two-story pile of wood chips sits chugging away.

Circling this constant crunching of pine is another heavy machine driven by an 18-year-old recent high school grad whose love for the forest brought him to this grueling but rewarding labor of 10-12 hour days.

This is the work of Peterson Timber and owner Zane Peterson. 

His company, contracted by timber company CHY, is in the process of thinning out this secluded forest nestled in the Yuba County foothills to help prevent the spread and severity of wildfires.

“We’re more than just a lumber company,” said Peterson, a young and hopeful business owner who takes pride in the work he does for all Californians.

And that is true. It is more than just a lumber company.

For Peterson and others who are trying to help manage California’s forests, their work is not about the money. It’s about making a real impact on the lives of those who not only live amongst the trees but also enjoy the beauty California’s forests and landscapes provide.

“We have a lot of young people that are passionate about the woods and passionate about making it better,” said Peterson. “I think that’s one reason that we’re able to do this kind of work because we’re young, nimble and able to take risks.”

 

Investments in a healthy forest

The work that Peterson is doing is part of the Yuba Foothills Healthy Forest Project. The project is funded mainly by a $4.5 million grant from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire) to Yuba Water Agency as part of the California Climate Investments Department of Forestry and Fire Protection Forest Health Program.

California Climate Investments, a statewide program that puts billions of cap-and-trade money to work, aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while strengthening the economy and improving public health and the environment.

After grant funds were awarded to Yuba Water Agency, the agency provided an additional $300,000 in cost share for California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) compliance documentation, project coordination and management, and grant administration. 

Partners involved in the project provided an additional $191,165 in matching funds.

In total, these funds are a collaborative effort that includes Yuba Water Agency, Cal Fire, the Plumas National Forest, the Yuba Watershed Protection and Fire Safe Council, private landowners and local residents.

It’s a massive undertaking that encompasses about 5,400 acres in upper Yuba County.

“Nearly 75,000 acres of land benefit from this project,” said JoAnna Lessard, project manager for Yuba Water Agency. “2,700 structures will also benefit, so it’s broadly beneficial to the community.”

As part of thinning out the forest in the foothills to achieve goals set out for this project, Peterson and his workers must cut down trees with guidance from experts and then prepare those trees on site for removal through a chipping process.

While the workers do receive advice from foresters, ultimately it is up to each individual worker to decide which tree or area to clear.

“We’re relying on their expertise to cut the right trees out,” said Madison Thomson, a forester for CHY. “Thousands upon thousands of decisions are made every day.”

Thomson said they generally aim to have about 20 feet of spacing between trees for projects like the one occurring in the Yuba County foothills.

“It’s not going to be an even 20-foot space between every tree,” said Thomson. “Some trees will be closer together, some will be further apart, but on average we’re looking for about that 20-foot spacing with the biggest and best looking trees being the ones that we leave.”

While the project’s main goal is to thin out forests to protect against the harms of wildfires, the work being done is also a benefit to the trees and forest itself.

“The objective in doing this work is multi-faceted,” said Thomson. “We’re doing this work partially to reduce fuels and create a forest condition that is going to be more resistant and more resilient if we do have a wildfire come through it. At the same time, we’re trying to grow big trees faster and create a forest structure that is going to be able to have more carbon storage capacity long term because we’re going to grow bigger trees and they’re going to be more resistant to burning up if we have a fire here.”

Thomson said these types of thinning out projects have been proven to be beneficial in the fight to lessen the effects of wildfires.

“We have fuel breaks that we’ve put in on CHY’s property very similar to what we’re looking at here that have successfully stopped fires in the past in this area,” said Thomson.

 

Big hurdles

The project is not without its challenges.

Once the trees are cut and prepared for transport in their final chip form, they are carried out on trucks to be hauled to a biomass power plant in Anderson where they are converted into energy for Californians to benefit from.

Peterson said because of restrictions such as travel time to and from Anderson, the need to wait for the chips to dry out and the overall process of getting trees ready, his company can only do about two trips a day with 14-16 bone dry tons of chips per truck -- in total it’s about 25 tons each the trucks are carrying out of these sites.

There’s also an issue of finding companies willing to do this kind of hard work in unpredictable conditions and finding the right biomass plant to transport to.

“From our perspective as land owners and people trying to design these kinds of projects, the biggest hurdle that we face is a lack of capacity on the ground doing the actual cutting and skidding to make these chipping operations work,” said Thomson. “I can probably count the number of operations on my hands that are capable of doing this kind of work throughout the northern California region. There aren’t the actual companies with the equipment and manpower to do it. The lack of capacity is the hugest hurdle that we face.”

Thomson said because of a lack of biomass power plants available in the state, the amount of time it takes to thin out any given area is restricted.

“We’re shipping these chips to Anderson, which is a really long way to send that material,” said Thomson. “We don’t have the number of biomass plants on the ground that are capable of taking chips and converting them into power that we need to be able to scale this work up.”

Peterson said long-term contracts and investments from the state or biomass plants are needed to make projects like these more successful.

“We need long-term contracts for the power that are at a rate that is economically feasible and that in turn would give guys like myself that have businesses, it would give us the financial stability to make long-term investments,” said Peterson. “You’re looking at about $4 million worth of equipment sitting out here. In order for me to take that financial leap and to purchase that equipment and purchase more of it and get more guys out here doing the work, I have to have long-term agreements.”

That cost of doing business is what has prohibited more chipping projects from being done now as compared to the past.

“There was a lot of this kind of chipping work that happened then (late 1990s, early 2000s),” said Thomson. “Back then the cost of doing business was so much lower. This kind of work was a lot more economically viable. The other side to doing this stuff right now … is just how astronomically high the cost in doing this work is. 

“Especially the last few years with increases in insurance costs, increases in equipment costs, fuel and we’re not seeing the same kind of price increases on the back end for the logs or the chips. Our log prices right now in California are probably lower than they were in the late 90s and our operating costs are probably at least double that.”

Another huge challenge for this project is weather and potential fire hazards involved with the kind of work it requires to take down trees and convert them for transport. 

“The challenge for us is the weather that we have during the summertime to work because it restricts our ability to work long hours and work full days and work consecutive days,” said Peterson. “The fire weather has been our biggest challenge this year. It’s just trying to be safe with what we’re doing and not putting anyone at risk.”

Fire weather, though, isn’t the only worry. 

Because of the need to haul large amounts of wood chips in and out of a narrow and soft dirt road, any amount of moisture can lead to a delay in the process.

“During the wintertime, if it’s too wet, we can’t run heavy equipment,” said Thomson.

Also, with the amount of wildfires currently in the state, the availability of workers needed for projects like this have become limited.

“That’s another huge hurdle we face right now,” said Thomson. “All of our loggers are getting scooped up doing these post-fire salvage operations. We just don’t have the capacity to be able to do the stuff on the front end to prevent that from happening.”

 

The stigma of logging

Amid a global and statewide push for cleaner energy, the availability of biomass power plants in California has been a challenge. 

According to the U.S. Department of Energy, biopower technologies “convert renewable biomass fuels into heat and electricity using processes similar to those used with fossil fuels. There are three ways to release the energy stored in biomass to produce biopower: burning, bacterial decay, and conversion to gas/liquid fuel.”

While the renewable energy provided by biomass plants may be better for the environment than a coal or gas power plant, the stigma attached to them can pose a challenge in attempting to build more to facilitate projects like the Healthy Forest Project -- projects that ultimately improve the environment for everyone.

“There’s becoming more recognition of the value of biomass as a potential clean-energy source in California,” said Thomson. “But there’s still a lot of lingering skepticism and opposition especially in the environmentalist community about the value of this kind of work. The reality is that this is still logging and there’s a lot of stigma attached to that word.”

Peterson said the ultimate goal is to make a better forest and environment for current and future generations.

“What loggers in the 21st century want to do is we want to make the forest healthier, safer, better for everything, for wildlife, for everyone to enjoy, for my children’s children to enjoy,” said Peterson. “If we don’t do this type of work, we won’t have a forest left in California. And that’s what we’re seeing. When we burn up million acre swaths, the majority of that land is not going to be returned to trees. Those trees are going to rot and go away and those are going to be brush fields. The logger of the 21st century is a whole lot different than it was in the 60s and 70s where that stigma comes from.”

Over time, there has been a change in both industry and public perception to the work that needs to be done in order to save California’s forests.

“There’s really been a huge mentality shift in the industry,” said Thomson. “There’s a lot more focus on doing these kind of fuels reduction and restoration projects as opposed to just value-extracting projects where you’re cutting the logs that are valuable and leaving everything else.”

For loggers like Peterson, they see themselves as saviors of the forests, not the enemy.

“If you went to every operator that’s on this site today, they would say that they are more passionate about the woods than just about anyone,” said Peterson.

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