Turning Waste into Wood for Life: Fueling Southwest Indigenous Communities through Fire Mitigation

Many of us in Colorado are already thinking about the long winter ahead—and how we’ll stay warm. In Southwest Colorado, a new partnership between the National Forest Foundation (NFF), San Juan National Forest, and Chinle Chapter House of the Navajo Nation is providing an innovative solution for home heating to indigenous communities.

Introducing Wood for Life

First developed in 2018 through collaboration between the Kaibab and Coconino National Forests, Navajo Nation, Hopi Tribe and NFF in 2018, the Wood for Life (WFL) program connects unwanted byproducts of forest health projects—undertaken to reduce wildfire risk, improve watershed health and protect wildlife habitat—with tribal communities who rely on wood-burning stoves to heat their homes.

In 2021, the program was adopted in Southwest Colorado where it provides a place for the San Juan National Forest to take the small diameter wood that piles up after being removed from overgrown forests, sustaining the Chinle Chapter with firewood that they can deliver to their members in need.

“This material is, in most cases, considered hazardous fuel and is a byproduct of thinning efforts,” said David Casey, Supervisory Forester for the Dolores Ranger District, San Juan National Forest.

Before WFL, this wood would go to waste. The program helps put it to work.

“Prior to Wood for Life, much of the woody biomass would end up in burn piles across a project or located within a log landing,” explained Tim Leishman, Timber Operations and San Juan Forest Wood for Life Program Manager.

In early 2021, the NFF, Chinle Chapter House of the Navajo Nation and San Juan National Forest partnered to transport 6 loads, or 84 cords, of firewood from restoration projects on the National Forest to households in need at the Chinle Chapter House. This past summer, the second year of the program, we have delivered 150 cords of wood.

We’re honored to keep this program moving forward. As we grow the program and work out the nuances of how it works, we intend to frequently transport loads during the summer and fall months so that we are meeting the needs of indigenous communities in proximity to the San Juan National Forest.

Like the Mission Mountains Youth Crew Program(S'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre), the Wood for Life Program fits squarely within NFF’s mission. We lead forest conservation efforts and promote responsible recreation on behalf of the American public, believing that National Forests and all they provide are vital to the health of our communities.

“[In these communities], a lot of people still live off the grid,” explained Nelthan Tabaha, a Chinle AmeriCorps Member who helped transport and distribute WFL wood to those in need. “So, they all use wood burning stoves for heating the house and even cooking food on wood burning stoves.”

“Wood for Life impacted our community in a good way because some people live without power in their homes, no running water or anything to stay warm with, so the Wood for Life really helped out our community so much,” said Derek O, another Chinle AmeriCorps Member who helped harvest wood for WFL.

What's Next

As we grow our San Juan Wood for Life Program, we look back to the Wood for Life Program in Arizona as inspiration. That robust partnership now includes over of wood have been provided to local tribal governments and nonprofits, who process and distribute it to community members throughout the Southwest. And NFF continues to grow Wood for Life programs throughout the regions where we work, such as in southern Idaho, where we delivered 700 cords to tribal communities this past summer.

If you’d like to learn more about how you can help us grow, we invite you to visit the NFF Wood for Life Tribal Fuelwood Initiative webpage(S'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre) to learn more. We are always working hard to raise the funding needed to transport and haul the wood from the San Juan National Forest to our partner tribal nations. We are also interested in connecting with new partners who may be able to play other roles to build the program. If you see an opportunity for partnership, please reach out to Emily Olsen at [email protected](S'ouvre dans une nouvelle fenêtre).