In mid-March Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell received a stern letter from the office of Arizona’s senior senator.

The letter from Sen. John McCain focused on the largest contractor on the 2.4 million-acre Four Forest Restoration Initiative, or 4FRI. The company, Good Earth Power AZ, had thinned just 8,332 acres of the contract's 300,000-acre goal, despite being halfway through the contract’s 10-year time period.

McCain called the lack of progress by Good Earth “profoundly disappointing” and wanted to know what the Forest Service was going to do about it.

As the largest stewardship contract in the agency's history reaches its midway point, there is broad recognition that it has missed the mark in a big way.

“(The contract) is generally the point of 4FRI that is considered the biggest failure,” Scott Russell, the Forest Service’s chief executive of the 4FRI project, told the Coconino County Board of Supervisors in April.

With that point acknowledged and accepted, the Forest Service and the 4FRI stakeholder group are now redirecting their focus and resources to parts of the project that have already proven more successful or have potential to turn the tree-thinning program around.

It’s a pivot many see as crucial to accelerating 4FRI toward its original goal of mechanically thinning 50,000 acres a year over 20 years in order to begin restoring Arizona’s fire-adapted ponderosa pine forests before they burn up instead.

But whether this attempt to reinvigorate and refocus the project, which includes a Forest Service effort to develop a new strategic plan for 4FRI, will be the reboot it needs remains to be seen.

“This is an important moment in time for 4FRI,” Coconino County Supervisor Art Babbott said during an April meeting on the project. “We need to be able to hoist a flag up that shows a direction and a path forward that is realistic and also engaging and provides energy.”

A CONTRACT REPEAT?

For its part, the Forest Service is developing a strategic plan to better guide its work on 4FRI into the future. Among the components, one has garnered the most attention. It calls for the agency to put out a request for proposals from timber industry businesses on their best ideas to thin and remove biomass — a term that refers to small trees, limbs and treetops — across 200,000 to 500,000 acres on 4FRI’s west side around Flagstaff and Williams.

If the strategy sounds familiar, it should. A similar, large-acreage RFP resulted in the 300,000-acre contract initially awarded to Montana-based Pioneer Forest Products, which had plans to make furniture and other wood products from timber and turn the leftover biomass into biodiesel.

But it was just a year and a few months later that Pioneer, faced with a lack of financing, got the Forest Service’s approval to transfer its contract to Good Earth Power AZ in September 2013.

This time around, there are good reasons to believe the process will end differently, Russell said. He explained that at the time the Forest Service awarded the first contract, the required environmental analysis on the designated forest parcels had not been completed, which meant there was no guarantee that legal challenges to the analysis wouldn't delay the start of logging work for years, Russell said.

With that in mind, the Forest Service designed a contract that was very “risk averse,” he said. It didn’t promise much and, because of that, couldn’t ask for much in return in terms of work completed on the ground, Russell said.

That means that despite thinning so few acres, Good Earth is still in compliance with the terms and conditions of its contract.

Now, the required environmental analyses have been completed on more than 500,000 acres within the 4FRI footprint, clearing them for mechanical thinning work. That will mean the Forest Service can not only require more of bidders but will likely attract a stronger slate of them, said Ethan Aumack of the Grand Canyon Trust, a longtime member of the 4FRI stakeholder group.

Already, the new RFP concept has garnered interest from new management at the helm of Good Earth Power AZ (see related story, Page A5) as well as Brad Worsley, CEO of the Snowflake-based biomass plant Novo Power and partner in the Novo Star sawmill. Worsley said he is “working diligently” to become a bidder on the RFP with a plan to build a biomass plant on the west side of the 4FRI footprint.

“The only way we see this working is to try to replicate the success on the east side (of the project) and that begins with a biomass facility,” he said.

The lingering question, however, is whether the Forest Service will reform the way it evaluates bidders to ensure a more reliable and capable contractor. The Forest Service said it is committed to “issuing an RFP that reflects lessons learned from the first process,” and will take into consideration nine standards developed by the stakeholder group that address things like contractor financing and firm accountability mechanisms.

Without a much more rigorous evaluation process, awarding a new RFP will “serve no purpose whatsoever,” said Pascal Berlioux, executive director of the Eastern Arizona Counties Organization and a member of the stakeholder group.

The Forest Service plans to release the request for proposals in the fall and, depending on what responses come in, it could award one large contract, several smaller ones or none at all if the bidders don’t make the cut, Russell said.

Many eyes are watching how the process unfolds to see if the model of industry-funded, rather than government subsidy-funded, thinning can actually work this time.

If the Forest Service can successfully award a contract, Berlioux said, "chances are we have solved 4FRI."

On the flip side, if the RFP process fails to attract viable bids that would help answer whether the model is actually viable, said Travis Bruner with the Grand Canyon Trust. If it’s not, then the initiative will have to reassess, said Aumack. The Forest Service will either have to reduce its thinning goals, bring in significant additional federal subsidies or use managed and prescribed fire much more aggressively, he said.

 

EAST SIDE SUCCESS

While 4FRI has been dogged by slow progress in the western portion of the project, Berlioux said he repeatedly reminds people that industry-funded thinning has been working “beautifully” on the east side in the White Mountains. In 2016, loggers thinned 15,000 acres without any subsidies, proving “the model isn’t flawed,” it’s an issue of execution, Berlioux said.

The Forest Service has acknowledged the east side’s progress as well and it has promised to offer 15,000 acres per year in timber sales or stewardship contracts on that side of 4FRI.

To help its employees follow through on that commitment, the Forest Service last year committed an extra $10 million per year to help complete the preparation work like resources surveys, timber volume estimates and tree marking that need to happen before thinning or prescribed fire can move forward. So far the Forest Service has fallen behind its prep goals, though, saying it plans to have 37,000 acres prepared for mechanical treatments this year, far below the 54,000 it had originally anticipated.

ANOTHER PHASE

In addition to accelerating work on the ground, the Forest Service is in the midst of a second environmental review process to make way for thinning, prescribed fire and ecological restoration work across another 1.2 million acres that stretch from the Happy Jack area to east of Pinetop-Lakeside across the Coconino, Apache-Sitgreaves and Tonto national forests.

Many said the process is looking positive so far, crediting the diverse group of stakeholders for keeping up energy and momentum on the project.

Considering the threat that wildfire continues to pose to the region's ponderosa pine forests, the project must keep moving forward, no matter what the obstacles, Aumack said.

“There really is no other option except to keep striving toward landscape-scale restoration and we don’t have a better model...than the collaboration we’ve developed over past several years,” he said.

Emery Cowan can be reached at (928) 556-2250 or ecowan@azdailysun.com

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Emery Cowan writes about science, health and the environment for the Arizona Daily Sun, covering everything from forest restoration to endangered species recovery efforts.

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