Mill delay sets back thinning

2013-06-09T05:00:00Z Mill delay sets back thinningCYNDY COLE Sun Staff Reporter Arizona Daily Sun
June 09, 2013 5:00 am  • 

It was this month that a Montana-based company had planned to break ground on a $200 million mill in Winslow as part of the biggest forest restoration project in the United States.

The mill is projected to employ 500 people directly, not counting truck-drivers, loggers or other affiliated workers.

And the scope of the work is massive: More than 920 square miles over four national forests (equal to all the land that lies between Flagstaff, Wupatki National Monument, Valle and Williams).

But construction on the mill isn't starting this month, and the project's future is not clear.

Pioneer Forest Products hasn't lined up investors to build the mill, spokesman Marlin Johnson confirmed Friday.

"We're still seeking financing. We're talking to a company that's very interested," he said.

Pioneer has employed a logging company to start work northwest of Heber, but at a fraction of the scale proposed — just 1,000 acres set for logging in the next 18 months.

"Is 4FRI ever going to start? Yes. We're not in the big scale, but we are starting," Johnson said.

The thinning project is called the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, or 4FRI, and it covers the two local forests, plus the Apache-Sitgreaves and the Tonto.

It's significant because 4FRI stands as the most agreed-upon plan for attempting to prevent Rodeo-Chediski-sized fires in ponderosa pine forests and restore forest health -- at the least cost to taxpayers.

The region's ponderosa stands are significantly unhealthy in that they have far more trees than they did historically, and about one-third of the area slated for thinning has a high likelihood of intense wildfire.

SUPERVISOR CRITICAL

Navajo County Supervisor David Tenney was critical of the Forest Service's choice of Pioneer over Flagstaff-based Arizona Forest Restoration Products. He believed Pioneer's flooring, trim and other products would face stiff foreign competition, and that its model of making biofuel from trees was experimental.

In all, Tenney estimated that Pioneer couldn't succeed financially, and groups told the Forest Service as much before the agency made its selection and Arizona Forest Restoration Products folded.

Tenney issued a press release Monday calling on the Forest Service to thin the forests even before Pioneer has financing in place for its mill.

"It is tragic that nothing is going to be done by 4FRI to mitigate catastrophic wildfire risks this fire season, but it is beyond irresponsible to sit by and wait till we are completely through the 2014 and 2015 fire seasons for Pioneer to only thin 1,000 acres," Tenney said. "In good conscience, I cannot accept that this is the best plan for Arizona's forests. The enjoyment, custom, culture, health, safety and economic well-being of our communities deserve better than this, and I call upon the Forest Service to do something about it," Tenney wrote.

Two Forest Service employees who typically speak for the Forest Service at the regional level, based in Albuquerque, did not respond to phone messages on Friday.

PRIORITIZE REDUCING FIRE DANGER

A handful of conservation groups are also raising questions about the way the areas proposed for logging have been handled - not as one large environmental analysis, but piece by piece, and amid the agency's selection of a contractor.

They want one large environmental analysis for the whole area, and also a number of smaller ones to examine logging impacts on specific regions.

The Center for Biological Diversity, Grand Canyon Wildlands Council, Great Old Broads for Wilderness, the Sierra Club, and the White Mountain Conservation League have recently filed statements and concerns with the Forest Service.

They said:

— They don't want trees larger in diameter than 16 inches cut.

— Federally threatened Mexican spotted owls could be killed in logging, as part of this project.

— Loggers should prioritize fire breaks and making the most areas fire-resistant in the shortest time.

— The agency should consider how it will pay to eventually close logging roads built for this project.

And the groups took a swipe at the Forest Service's chosen contractor, Pioneer, in calling for actions to reduce fire danger as the top priority.

"The contractor still has no investors, nor does it have a clear business plan or demonstrated expertise in executing forest treatments at the scale and intensity proposed for this project," the groups wrote.

Cyndy Cole can be reached at ccole@azdailysun.com or at 913-8607.

Copyright 2015 Arizona Daily Sun. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

(5) Comments

  1. 4CornersFP
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    4CornersFP - June 12, 2013 9:38 pm
    The real answer lies in Eagar. Pioneer has no experience and no money. Real players need the opportunity to build a real mill.
  2. bigmac1121
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    bigmac1121 - June 12, 2013 4:32 pm
    I find it interesting that Pioneer was picked over AZFRP because of the diverse products. The thing I dont understand is how and why a company was picked that was not financially backed by any investors. The dailysun needs to get its fact straight on AZFRP they did fold but not until after the contract announcement was made. This article made it sound the contract went to Pioneer because AZFRP folded.
  3. clifffalling
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    clifffalling - June 10, 2013 2:44 pm
    I certainly hope they get their act together. The trees are coming down one way or the other. Burned or cut.
  4. brasstacks
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    brasstacks - June 09, 2013 11:34 pm
    Very confusing aricle. It sounded like the envir-no-metal groups wanted something done until I got to the end of the article and they have the same demands they've had for the past 20 years. Someone needs to explain to these groups that trees grow. But I guess if they are not using any scientific basis for their magic size limet in the first place, it really doesn't matter what the facts are.
  5. Matthew Quigley
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    Matthew Quigley - June 09, 2013 10:00 am
    The writer failed to articulate the real problem: Investors are skeptical of putting their money into projects that will almost certainly come under litigation. The health of our National Forests are being threatened by those who masquerade as organizations that protect the forest. Environmental extremists: The Sierra Club, The Center For Biological Diversity, etc. are responsible for the decline of forest health and for many of the wild fires that have occurred in Northern Arizona.
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