A Montana-based company won a contract Friday for the biggest-ever thinning project in U.S. history designed to restore northern Arizona forests to health.
Pioneer Associates of Billings, Mont., will use the wood from 300,000 acres to feed a wood products mill that it plans to open in Winslow by the fall of 2013.
Pioneer agreed to pay the U.S. Forest Service $6.6 million for the right to log the forests -- about $22 an acre.
The mill will employ 600 people and cut ponderosa pines 5 inches in diameter and larger into pieces about a couple inches thick, with the pieces glued together and joined to form laminated panels.
Those panels go into doors, windows and furniture.
"Really, the only way you can take this small wood and turn it into something valuable is through this process," said Michael Cooley, a sawmill operator in Heber speaking on behalf of Pioneer Associates and its Arizona subsidiary, Pioneer Forest Products.
Mid-level jobs would pay some $26,000 to $32,000 annually, and the mill would be running at full capacity by 2015
Another 400 people would be employed logging and trucking on some 30,000 acres a year of Coconino and Kaibab national forests for 10 years. The first 5,000 acres will be logged this year.
The Pioneer contract is part of a 20-year plan to restore 2.4 million acres along the Mogollon Rim to a natural fire regime, reduce wildfire threats and create sustainable forest industries.
Local Forest Service officials, speaking at a press conference Friday at Little America Hotel in Flagstaff, said they delegated all decisions about who got the contract to Albuquerque, to avoid the possibility that local businesses working with local national forests would get special consideration.
"The company that gets this has to stay for 10 years and has to have the ability to be successful," said Corbin Newman, head of national forests in the Southwest.
The Center for Biological Diversity -- which has been a part of a 31-member stakeholder group calling for precisely this kind of action in the forest -- blasted the agency's pick, saying that the other bidder would have paid more for the contract and had pledged to use only small-diameter trees.
The Center contended that one of the principals in Pioneer Forest Products is a recent Forest Service employee.
"The decision stinks of cronyism," said the Center's Taylor McKinnon.
Any opponents have a couple weeks to challenge the Forest Service's selection.
Pioneer plans to build in Winslow with or without any legal or other procedural challenges, Cooley said.
Not long ago, these small- and medium-diameter tree contracts went begging, if they sold at all.
Some small forest-thinning contracts didn't sell for lack of buyers for the harvested wood, Flagstaff District Ranger Mike Elson said a couple of years ago.
This longer-term, $6.6 million contract somewhat changes the equation, though, by setting a lower price in exchange for the construction of a major facility to use small trees.
Pioneer Associates is planning to use the bulk of each tree to make laminate wood.
The limbs and twigs would make biodiesel, heat for a kiln to dry wood, and electricity.
Steve Gatewood works for the Greater Flagstaff Forest Partnership, which formed after the 1996 wildfire season that saw big fires near Flagstaff, and he's been keeping track of these plans.
"I think they're great," he said. "We've been waiting for a long time."
He likes the provision to haul limbs and brush out of the forest and use it for fuel and heat, rather than burning it.
"Everybody's committed to using the byproducts," he said.
TRUCKS VS. WILDFIRES
Truck traffic in and out of the forest will increase, with about four trips per acre, or 120,000 truck trips per year over the national forests for this work.
Officials were asked about the impact of increased logging on tourism, and if the scale of the logging would hamper it.
The alternative -- really big wildfires -- is usually worse for tourism, said Newman, the regional forester for the U.S. Forest Service.
"There's a few things people look for when they look for a recreation setting," he said. "They want it green. Not brown. Not black."
Cyndy Cole can be reached at 913-8607 or at email@example.com.