The business of thinning
|July 30, 2002||View for printing|
New Mexico lands are in dire need of tree-thinning, and local companies looking to branch out are more than happy to provide the service
By Sue Vorenberg Tribune Reporter
There's an upside to the critically unhealthy state of New Mexico's forests: It's created a budding new industry.
Tiny contracting companies, most of them created by former firefighters, are sprouting up all over the state to help homeowners, towns and even the Forest Service thin wooded areas that have become dramatically overgrown. And with about 7 million acres in need of thinning to help prevent fires, it looks like they'll be in business for quite some time.
"The job security is there," said Daniel Monta§o, a former firefighter and co-owner of SWISCO, a contractor in Albuquerque's East Mountains. "Once we finish one project, the Forestry Division has another one lined up for us. There's a waiting list of about 250 people, and we're just in the very early stages. There's so much work to be done. This can be a very lucrative business."
The pay is good, with business owners bringing in anywhere from $30,000 to $70,000 a year. And many are hiring workers at an average of $10 an hour to help with the vast amount of work out there, Monta§o said.
"There's a real urgency to have this done with the fires this year," said Randall Engler, another former firefighter and owner of A&R Thinning and Removal Services, also in the East Mountains.
The East Mountain area has the most small contractors, with about 10 one- to five-person companies, said Kevin Robinson, an assistant editor with New Mexico State University's agricultural communications department.
"Five or six of those are entirely new startup companies," Robinson said. "And there are a lot more sprouting up in areas like Ruidoso, Capitan and Red River. I'd say there's probably 1,000 people working in this industry across the state."
Efforts to deal with overgrown forests - some have 30 to 50 times more trees than is considered healthy - are just getting underway. The state Forestry Division and U.S. Forest Service, partnering with communities, started a program last year that pays for 70 percent of the thinning where towns border on wilderness areas.
"I was fighting fires with the Forestry Division in October and heard about the program's request for proposals," Engler said. "My partner and I put in a bid and we got a contract for 10 properties. It's taken off from there."
Some cities, such as Ruidoso, have mandated that homeowners thin trees around their property to protect themselves, and their neighbors, from fire. Others are leaving it up to residents, but if disastrous fires continue, more towns might follow in Ruidoso's footsteps, said Marlon Johnson, assistant director of forest management at the Forest Service's Albuquerque office.
The Forest Service, besides helping homeowners thin their properties, also hires contractors to help thin national forests. It has an annual budget of $15.7 million in New Mexico to thin trees and is mostly working in areas near towns, Johnson said.
Last year it thinned about 100,000 acres, much of it with the help of small contracting companies. This year it will probably thin about the same amount. But with 7 million acres in need of thinning, there's lots of work available, Johnson said.
"There are a lot of small contracting companies getting started, but there really aren't many bigger companies that can treat several hundred acres at a time," he said.
Even a small technology company in Mountainair has found a way to get in on the forest cleanup economy. The 16-person P&M Signs takes removed material and then chips and mixes it with ground-up recycled milk jugs to create a durable material used to make signs for the Forest Service.
"What we do is take all the slash and all the stuff that can't be sold as firewood and combine it to create a kind of board that can be used as a sign," owner Phil Archuletta said. "We started the company in 1994 and we've been averaging about $1 million a year, although it could be $2 million this year."
The nature of the problem
Many national forests, due to poor management strategies in the late 1800s to mid-1900s, have more than 1,000 trees per acre, when they should have about 50 to 60. Overgrazing in the late 1800s, and forest management policies that called for the putting out of all forest fires in the mid-1900s, changed the tree density, letting an abundance of young trees sprout up, said George Duda, an urban forester with the state Forestry Division.
"Fire used to keep the forests thinned," Johnson said. "They would burn through forests every five to 10 years, and mostly they had grass, pine needles and small trees to burn. But in the 1870s, as the area developed, there was an awful lot of livestock brought to this area that ate the grass. That stopped fires from spreading as much through the forest floor."
He said drought has killed a lot of trees in the past few years. "They're dry and still standing there, so now they're a fire hazard," he said. "Dead brown trees are really an invitation to have a fire in a hurry."
The new companies want to address the problem before more catastrophic fires hit the state, Monta§o said.
"We've seen the effects from the condition of the forest close up as firefighters, and now we're on the other side, trying to prevent them before they can start," he said.
Most of the contractors are starting businesses for the first time. The paperwork, and the details to provide benefits for workers, have been difficult, Engler said.
Forest and residential thinning don't fall into the traditional insurance categories of either logging or landscaping. And that has cost the companies money, Monta§o added.
"The rates are really high because there's no workers' comp or insurance category for us," he said. "We're not landscapers or loggers. We need to talk to our senators and see if we can get a category for this type of contracting."
Another problem is that thinning contracts are usually paid in 60 to 90 days, which can make it financially difficult to get a business up and running, Engler said.
"I invoice, but it always takes a while to get paid," he said. "It's a struggle to meet my costs at times, as a small business owner. I have a crew to pay and sometimes that can be frustrating, but I just keep working. You have to get into a cycle with it, and we're pretty much there now. But most contractors enjoy getting paid upon completion of their work."
Another problem is getting rid of thinning waste products. Some can be used as firewood or mulch, but there's still a lot left over, Robinson said.
"You can chip it and burn it or use it as mulch, but there's so much tonnage out there it's not really an efficient way," he said.
Archuletta's business is trying to take care of waste left over from the Los Humanas Co-op, which is another community-based forest thinning operation in the East Mountains.
"Right now we have all the chips we can use," he said. "But when we get more demand for our products we'll start looking elsewhere and see how much more we can take."
Monta§o said he's confident most problems will be worked out, but hopes serious attention will be given to the issues, considering the crucial nature of the work.
"It's a new type of business so there are a lot of bugs, but it'll come," he said.
Too soon for spinoffs?
Even though the companies have fewer than five employees, both Engler and Monta§o are thinking about creating spinoffs.
Engler said he'd like to start a spinoff that thins dams and other obstacles left by beavers.
"We're also thinking of expanding and starting another business in the Rio Grande Bosque," he said. "The Middle Rio Grande Conservancy District is planning some major thinning work there, and they're talking to a lot of contractors about it."
Monta§o said he's also interested in the bosque work. The conservancy district plans to thin 154 acres in Albuquerque's bosque area, which could take some time to finish.
"That's a lot of work for just a few guys," he said.
It typically takes three or four days for a three-person crew to thin a three- to five-acre property, and some parts of the bosque are much thicker than a typical property, Engler said.
Monta§o also wants to create new business operations in other parts of the state.
"We'd like to get some projects in Capitan and Socorro, which still need to get started on this work," he said. "We'd like to get some projects there and hire some contractors from those areas. We want to keep the money in those communities."
P&M Signs also sees room for expansion, especially if it can move into some lucrative new areas, Archuletta said.
"Our signs are ideal for the Forest Service, which helped us, along with several other agencies, to create a product from waste trees," he said. "The Forest Service has a problem with its old plyboard signs. It has cornmeal filler in it, and porcupines tend to eat them through the winter. They come back in the spring and the signs are gone."
Porcupines don't like to eat Archuletta's signs, though, and the Forest Service has contracted with the company to replace all of its signs with his product.
"It may also be ideal for the construction industry," Archuletta added. "That's where we want to go."
P&M Signs is working with 3M Corp. to test the signs and see if they meet construction industry specifications.
If it does work, Archuletta said he'd like to hire at least five more employees and possibly open another factory in a different part of the state, near more of the forest thinning activities.
"I'd like to keep it here in New Mexico," he said. "And eventually we'll probably start paying for the chips, which could help some of these small companies out."
New Mexico has been far and away the front runner in developing a working program for the reduction of fuels in their forests as well as small diameter timber usage. They are probably two years ahead of Montana and will continue to be so until our state government wakes up to the problem. Unfortunately, they are too busy trying to sell the cows so that they can buy a new milking machine and are unaware that anything is amiss.
What is needed in Montana is:
- A push by individual homeowners to thin their own property, (there are grants available for this)and;
- A concerted effort by state and federal agencies in assisting small businesses who specialize in the use of the waste material generated by the thinning process.
Until practical, high volume uses for the thinned material are developed, the process of fuels reduction will be hampered by the enormous debris piles accumulated during thinning.
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