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.
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 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 firstname.lastname@example.org or at 913-8607.