Fifteen years ago, rabbit hunters discovered a corpse in a cornfield.
The dead man was Retha Letseoma’s husband, Pershing, who had been missing for three months. She would never know for sure how or why he died. He’d walked out of the rock house he shared with her and their five children one day in October, promising he’d return soon. Instead, he’d vanished. Letseoma had searched for him for days, combing through villages atop rocky, buff-hued mesas on a 1.5-million-acre swath of land belonging to the Hopi Tribe in northern Arizona.
After Pershing’s death, Letseoma and the kids moved into her parents’ three-bedroom, two-bath HUD home in Kykotsmovi, Arizona. When Letseoma was growing up in this house, her father had farmed and ranched and had owned horses, cattle, sheep, and chickens. There had always been enough food in the house, and plenty of firewood and coal to fuel the family heating stove during icy winter nights.
But with Pershing dead, Letseoma had less income. Her parents were aging, and Letseoma felt obligated to help pay their medical expenses. Her father died first, and then her mother. Letseoma and several daughters stayed on in the house. In time, two sons-in-law moved in. And three grandkids were born. Today, Letseoma is 54 and lives there with nine family members. She views their multigenerational home as a blessing.
Until the pandemic swept through Hopi trust lands, home to about 9,000 people, Letseoma paid household expenses with her $398 monthly Social Security check along with $250 or so she earned each month by babysitting and selling made-from-scratch cream puffs and cookies. But two sets of lengthy stay-at-home orders have dried up the babysitting and baking income. The adults who live with her also bring in limited funds: One son-in-law is a part-time security guard, another works off-reservation for the Arizona Department of Transportation, and a daughter clerks at the village store. They take care of their families and do what they can to help with general household expenses, Letseoma says, “but mostly it’s me paying the bills.” That includes the electric bill. In the winter, it can run around $230—more than half of Letseoma’s current monthly income—because she has to plug in three space heaters to keep the grandkids warm.
Like tens of thousands of others in Indigenous nations in northern Arizona, Letseoma and her family are facing a home heating crisis exacerbated by the shuttering of a nearby coal mine that has resulted in a loss of free coal for heating and cooking stoves. Elders, people with disabilities, and others without the physical or financial means to acquire firewood are particularly vulnerable to freezing to death—low temperatures on the Colorado Plateau dip below freezing from November through March.
The pandemic has worsened the crisis. Furloughs and layoffs mean less money to buy firewood from commercial woodcutters. (For Letseoma, a pickup truckload of firewood from a commercial woodcutter would cost upward of $150 and would only last about six weeks.) Curfews also curtailed traditional fall family firewood-gathering expeditions in nearby national forests, which give out free wood permits to many members of Indigenous tribes. Deaths of family members to COVID-19 have plunged some families into grief, depression, and disorganization.
Those with no access to firewood are burning clothes, phone books, and mail. They’re dismantling sheep corrals, pulling up boards from front porches and sheds, harvesting dry bushes, and fitting any other makeshift fuel they can find into their wood-and-coal-burning stoves.
“The first Americans are always the last in line,” says Loren Anthony, a professional actor who lives in Gallup, New Mexico, and is a member of the Navajo Nation. Anthony founded a volunteer group, Chizh for Cheii (Firewood for Grandfather), that has harvested, cut, and delivered free firewood to families in need and forgotten elders for nine years. He visits the same homes each year and gets attached to the elders. The high rates of COVID-19 among Indigenous people have garnered a lot of news coverage that amounts to “poverty porn,” he says. He wishes such stories would offer more context of what caused the poverty in the first place; the U.S. government’s historic failure to honor treaties and other legal agreements is, in his view, the root cause for the substandard health care, education, infrastructure, and housing, along with high unemployment, that is rampant in Indigenous nations.
He says that two winters ago, during a firewood delivery, he found one old man lying in the mud, too weak to get back on his feet. “I picked him up and carried him inside like a baby,” Anthony recalls. “Got him out of the wet clothes, put dry clothes on him, started a fire, and helped him warm up. The entire time he kept asking if I was his son.” If he hadn’t been there, the elder “would have frozen to death,” says Anthony.
Anthony says he’s met with a U.S. senator and other high-level government officials (he won’t name them) about the urgent firewood need, and they voice empathy, but “no government officials or organizations have given our efforts any funding.”
“I see it as something that is just up to us,” he says.
You hear that a lot in northern Arizona’s Indigenous nations.
And it explains why Anthony and dozens of other members of Indigenous communities, along with Indigenous foundations, nonprofits, and churches, have taken it upon themselves to keep their vulnerable neighbors from freezing to death.
It’s been a fragmented and fluid emergency effort to save lives that’s difficult to measure. Some, like Anthony, harvest and cut firewood to give away. Others, like professional woodcutter Neil Damon, sell it for a razor-thin profit, with prices scaled to meet the financial needs of consumers. And lately, professional woodcutters, Indigenous community activists, and tribal officials have collaborated with the U.S. Forest Service and nonprofits to deliver firewood made from logs that have been mechanically thinned from Arizona’s tinder-dry national forests in an effort to avert deadly wildfires that are only getting worse. This fledgling program is aptly called “Wood for Life.”
Sometimes, members of “hotshot” firefighting crews wander into Jeff Arnett’s tattoo shop on historic Highway 66 in Williams, a small town about 30 miles west of Flagstaff in northern Arizona that bills itself as a gateway to the Grand Canyon.*
Unlike tourists, who ask Arnett to ink Highway 66 road signs into their flesh after an afternoon of bebopping in the town’s kitschy Highway 66–themed bars, the firefighters request commemorations of fallen comrades or forest scenes. Their tattoos serve as reminders of their battles against forest fires ravaging the nation, particularly in California, the Pacific Northwest, and the intermountain West.
Arnett is 47 and loves hiking in the nearby Kaibab National Forest, where a 9,170-foot-tall peak named Bill Williams Mountain sits.
Williams, now home to some 3,100 people, was once a logging community. Up until the 1970s, the Forest Service permitted loggers to harvest hardy, fire-resistant old growth ponderosa pine trees in the area. Young trees with little timber value sprouted up. Decades of fire suppression, combined with a long cycle of natural drought made all the more vicious by climate change, resulted in the slopes of Bill Williams Mountain being overpopulated with weak, diseased trees in desperate competition for limited groundwater—a megafire in the making. If Bill Williams Mountain were to burn, the fire would render the town of Williams vulnerable to catastrophic mudslides and flooding, Jay Smith, a veteran forester who now directs forest restoration for Coconino County, tells me. A strong summer rainstorm could loosen “boulders the size of a Volkswagen Bug” and send a 6-foot wall of mud, debris, and water roaring down the mountain’s flame-hardened slopes, blasting out the town’s reservoir system at the base of the mountain, then roaring through downtown Williams and its strip of Highway 66, smothering parts of railroad tracks traveled by the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway, and plunging onto Interstate 40.
The estimated economic impact to the region ranges from $379 million to $694 million. Alternatively, it would cost $15 million to $20 million to avert this disaster by restoring the forest to a more natural state, according to Smith. A healthy forest on the mountain would help species like the spotted owl survive, keep the town’s water supply and tourism industry intact, and prevent the release of carbon into the atmosphere.
In 2020, the county, along with state and federal foresters and the National Forest Foundation, began thinning the steeper slopes of Bill Williams Mountain, where the unnaturally dense forest consists predominantly of ponderosa pine trees. Thinning the forest creates more natural living spaces for the remaining ponderosa pines, enabling them to more easily withstand a fire. These upper slopes of Bill Williams Mountain are too steep for logging trucks to navigate, so helicopters have shuttled pine logs off the slopes to staging areas. The logs can be used to manufacture a plywood-type building product, gardening mulch, wood pellets, and fuel for biomass plants. But the cost of transportation to processing centers hundreds of miles away often outpaces the value of the logs. It’s discouraging some local loggers from seeking forest restoration contracts, thus lengthening the time it takes to thin forests to try and fend off megafires.
Solving this so-called biomass bottleneck has challenged and frustrated policymakers, nonprofits, loggers, government foresters, and academics for years. But it is the product of a century of forest mismanagement, and they only need to overcome it once. “We won’t have a biomass bottleneck always,” says Peter Fulé, a professor at the School of Forestry at Northern Arizona University. “The idea is to restore forests to their natural conditions.”
Some ponderosa pine forests in lower elevations will succumb to climate change, he says. But ponderosa pine trees evolved with natural fire. Those growing in highlands in southern British Columbia, California, the intermountain West, and northern Mexico have a shot at survival. Once the forests are restored, many will thin themselves by natural fire, which burns much more gently than the megafires that erupt in unhealthy forests clogged with weak, diseased, dry trees.
So foresters need something to do with the pesky byproduct of forest restoration. Indigenous nations in northern Arizona need a solution for their escalating home heating crisis. And about a year ago, someone put those two problems together.
Milton Tso has been a park ranger and a tour guide. He’s played his flute for tourists at a resort. The pandemic put a stop to all of those jobs—and made his role as president of the Cameron Chapter of the Navajo Nation even more challenging. He was elected eight years ago and has the heart of an activist. He’s fought toxic uranium mining and other projects he’s found destructively wrongheaded—like a proposed RV park built on Navajo land on the edge of the Grand Canyon, complete with a tram to shuttle tourists down to a sacred salt trail.
I meet with Tso, who is 49 and grew up in Cameron, shortly before the presidential election. A steady stream of early voters in masks is lining up behind an outdoor polling station covered with a plastic shade structure.
Cameron is a town of about 1,100 that sits on a wind-swept, cinnamon-red high desert bluff overlooking the Little Colorado River, and the Chapter House and grounds surrounding it are close to the edge of the bluff. Before the pandemic hit, the Cameron Trading Post, with its handcrafted jewelry and Navajo rugs, was a favorite stop for tour buses.
Cameron, which sits on the dry, often treeless western side of the Navajo Nation, was hit particularly hard by the shuttering of the nearby Black Mesa coal mine complex. It’s not that the coal mine was universally beloved. Mining operations depleted 45 billion gallons of groundwater from the local aquifer; much of it went into coal slurry that traveled 273 miles from the Navajo Nation to a generating station that helped power Arizona, California, and Nevada. Tons of Black Mesa coal were also shipped to a separate generating station that for years provided much of the power needed to pump Colorado River water 336 miles uphill to the cities of Phoenix and Tucson.
Meanwhile, many homes in the Navajo Nation had neither electricity nor water.
Still, the coal mine did provide free coal to members of the Navajo and Hopi nations. And many in the Cameron Chapter relied on that free coal for warmth, routinely adding it to firewood in their stoves. Coal burns slower than firewood, which was expensive and hard to obtain on this unforested stretch of the nation. During cold winters, coal extended the life of firewood.
In late 2019, Tso and Henry Provencio, a forest restoration innovations and efficiencies coordinator for the Forest Service, first kicked around the idea of converting low-grade forest restoration logs from thinning projects in Arizona’s national forests—places like Bill Williams Mountain—into free firewood to help solve the home heating crisis in Indigenous lands. They came up with the name “Wood for Life.”
The following winter, the first load of logs—100 cords weighing about 400,000 pounds, enough to keep 25 households with elders warm from November to March—was dump-trucked from a forest restoration site to Cameron that spring.
In 2020, the Forest Service, the National Forest Foundation, the Nature Conservancy, and other groups delivered a total of 650 cords, or 1,300 pickup truckloads, of Wood for Life restoration firewood to the Navajo, Hopi, Hualapai, and San Juan Paiute nations, Provencio says—and that’s only about 1 percent of wood cut in national forest restoration projects in Arizona in one year.
Wood for Life is still in its experimental stage. But of all the grassroots efforts to keep people from freezing to death this winter, it holds the most promise of providing a sustainable supply of much-needed firewood for at least 20 years, perhaps long enough for renewable heat sources, like solar energy, to be developed in northern Arizona’s Indigenous nations. Jonathan Nez, the president of the Navajo Nation, which is the size of West Virginia and is home to more than 300,000 people, has long focused on transitioning the nation to renewable energy.
It’s difficult to measure how many people are involved in Wood for Life. The numbers ebb and flow. Private foresters, nonprofit workers, commercial truckers, and Forest Service members are all involved, as are Indigenous volunteers, health care workers, and churches. During the first Wood for Life delivery, for instance, the nonprofit National Forest Foundation arranged for commercial transportation while Tso and others sawed and chopped the logs into firewood small enough to fit into stoves. Three days later, all the wood had been distributed.
There are at least a million acres of national forest land in Arizona awaiting restoration, which could take 20 years. Over that time span, 1 million acres of restored forest would supply about 10 million cords of firewood, which would amount to about 20 million pickup truckloads, or half-cords of wood. (A half-cord of wood would heat a household for as little as two weeks and as long as eight weeks, depending on the family’s needs.)
Jean Bighorse, a 77-year-old retired teacher who raises sheep in wind-whipped red flatlands about 20 miles northwest of Cameron, burns wood in her stove all day to keep her husband, Julius, warm. He’s just had open heart surgery, and a cord of firewood doesn’t last long. Bighorse says she used to have a few cattle in addition to the sheep, but sold them in part to buy firewood. When she heard about the free Wood for Life firewood offered at the Cameron Chapter House, she drove to Cameron to pick some up. But the line was long, and by the time her turn came around, there was little wood left. She relies on her adult children and extended family members to keep her supplied with firewood, when they can find it.
“Grandmothers burn a lot of wood,” Tso says.
“When I am in my 80s or 90s,” he says as he stands on the chapter grounds, “I would like to come here and get a load of wood.”
“Hauling wood” means harvesting, cutting, and delivering firewood, and it has long been a family tradition for Ames J. Meyers and his sister, Sophina Calderon. Both are members of the Navajo Nation. Meyers, 36, is a union boilermaker who lives in Flagstaff. Calderon is a family medicine doctor who practices for Tuba City Regional Health Care, a tribally managed hospital in Tuba City, a town of about 8,600 on the western side of the Navajo Nation.
In pre-pandemic times, the Western Navajo Nation Fairgrounds in Tuba City hosted well-attended rodeos, fairs, and other festive events. On the day I visit the fairgrounds, a large tent stocked with food, water, and other necessities is buffeted by a strong, bitingly cold wind.
A fierce second wave of COVID-19 is racing across the Navajo Nation, and Calderon understands more than most how pandemic deaths have already changed family structures, causing “isolation, depression, and anxiety” that has prevented some families from obtaining wood supplies.
A graduate of Dartmouth College, Calderon taught math at both Phillips Academy and Navajo Nation schools before getting her medical degree and returning to practice in her homeland. Today, she’s standing in a circle with Tosheena Nez, who helps organize delivery of food and other supplies to “COVID-positive” and quarantined households; Terry Hudson, a forestry expert who has driven up from Phoenix, where he is getting his MBA; Harold Nez, who works for the Navajo government and can provide the equipment necessary to remove forest logs from enormous, Peterbilt-like trucks; and Sasha Stortz, a program manager for the National Forest Foundation who organizes what she calls the “supply chain” logistics of wood delivery from Wood for Life national forests to Indigenous nations.
Much of the logistics has to do with contracting with truckers to haul the wood out of national forests (at under $100 per cord), creating relationships with Indigenous stakeholders, and ensuring there is sufficient equipment and space at drop-off points. The Tuba City fairgrounds passes muster easily, but it will take several weeks before 400 cords of wood arrive in Tuba City.
As they await the deliveries, Calderon and Meyers have organized a wood hauling network that includes volunteers (including doctors and nurses, who will help chop the wood), nonprofits, a hospital, visiting nurses, churches, business groups, and woodcutters, like Loren Anthony’s Chizh for Cheii.
“We find ways to make things happen,” Calderon says.
When Meyers isn’t out on boilermaker jobs, he and his father frequently caravan to national forests to harvest wood for those in danger of freezing to death. As he drives, Meyers cranks up country-western songs, like “Pretty Heart” and “What the Hell Did I Say,” or he listens to the Navajo Nation station on the radio. There’s a lot of social work involved in wood hauling, he says. Wood haulers deliver food, water, and personal protective equipment. They talk to lonely elders. They assess living and financial conditions.
Window Rock, the seat of the Navajo Nation government, is tucked among forested mountains on the eastern side of the nation, near the New Mexico border. Neil Damon, a former wildlands firefighter who lives in Window Rock, says the regional need for firewood is so great here that he bought more woodcutting equipment with COVID-19 relief funds. But even though he’s harvesting and selling more firewood than ever, he’s just getting by.
We meet in a retired junkyard once operated by Damon’s grandfather. One side is bordered by spired red sandstone peaks and juniper trees, and there’s a cluster of family homes on the other side. Firewood is such a valuable commodity in northern Arizona’s Indigenous lands that it’s sometimes stolen and resold. Damon figures the former junkyard is one of the few places where his firewood is safe from thieves.
On Highway 264, which runs through Window Rock, there’s a place everyone calls “Holly Wood”—a swap meet–like row of trucks loaded with firewood sold at prices those in need can’t afford. We pass Holly Wood when Damon, along with his brother, Daniel, take me on one delivery run to a tattered mobile home next to a rusted-out car with flat tires and a Phoenix Suns basketball team vanity license plate. The trailer looks to be about 50 years old. Ventilation pipes, possibly for a heating stove, poke out of one side of the trailer. Broken windows are triaged with cardboard. The owner doesn’t want me to take photos.
Damon might be a commercial woodcutter and a for-profit member of the grassroots emergency firewood delivery system, but he grew up in a trailer not much different from this one.
As he pitches freshly split firewood from his truck into a tidy pile a few feet away from the trailer, he says he’s not about to let people freeze to death if they can’t afford firewood. Commercial woodcutting can often feel like humanitarian work in northern Arizona Indigenous lands, what with the pandemic and the coal mine shutting down.
On a sunny afternoon in Tewa Village of the Hopi Nation, a dozen or so men wearing hard hats, face masks, orange shirts, and jeans arrange freshly split firewood into cords and half-cords in tidy bins sitting in a fenced lot. A Van Halen song blasts through the air. The men work so fast they can load a pickup truck bed with wood in six minutes.
Tewa Village, a community of about 1,200 people, is culturally different from other communities of the Hopi Nation. Ancestors here migrated from what is now New Mexico in the 17th century. Many still feel a little like outsiders. The community has historically gotten the “scraps and leftovers” from the Hopi Tribe, says Jayson Paymella, chairman of the Tewa Village board of directors.
After news broke that the Black Mesa coal mine would be shuttered, community leaders launched a self-sustaining firewood business that now hires 30 workers. “We couldn’t wait on the federal or tribal governments” to deliver firewood, Paymella says.
The village contracts with the White Mountain Apache Tribe for logs from its forest, then processes it and charges community members on a sliding scale. Those who can’t pay write IOUs. Paymella, who is 40 years old and as an activist had pushed for the shuttering of the Black Mesa mine, won’t share financials, but says the firewood business has been so “financially advantageous” it “put us in a good position to respond to the pandemic.” Firewood revenue funded the training of security guards who keep outsiders out of the village when stay-at-home orders are in place, he says.
Independent-minded Tewa Village has such a strong firewood program going that it hasn’t joined other Hopi villages in the fledgling Wood for Life program. But about 20 miles to the west of Tewa Village, in Kykotsmovi, Retha Letseoma has a shrinking pile of Wood for Life firewood, which she keeps covered with a blue tarp in her backyard. A partnership that includes the National Forest Foundation and three Indigenous nonprofits—Hopi Foundation, Ancestral Lands, and Red Feather Development Group—got this firewood delivered to her. Now that Letseoma has a new grandchild to keep warm, she is beyond grateful not to have to plug in the space heaters that result in $230 monthly heating bills. Plus, she knows that by burning Wood for Life fuel, she’s doing her part in forest restoration. She’ll run out of wood soon, but she’s hoping for another load before that.
Sometimes, she looks out on the ancient village on the mesa and wonders why the Hopi people are invisible to many. “We’ve been here forever,” she tells herself. She knows how to weather hard times, and things won’t always be as tough as they are now—she just feels it.
Correction, Jan. 29, 2021: This article originally misstated Williams, Arizona’s location. It is 30 miles west of Flagstaff, not 30 miles east.