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Forest Service puts new 4FRI large-scale forest thinning contract on hold

A key project to speed up and expand forest restoration in northern Arizona will now be delayed to a time uncertain. For the past year, stakeholders in the 2.4 million-acre Four Forest Restoration Initiative, or 4FRI, had been under the impression that the Forest Service was making progress on issuing a large-scale contract for tree thinning and forest biomass removal on up to 500,000 acres.

But at a meeting last month, the Forest Service announced it won’t be soliciting proposals for the contract. The agency had initially agreed to a plan under which it would release a request for proposals in December 2017.

The move largely came to the surprise of stakeholders, many of whom see a large-scale contract as the only way the region-wide forest health project will ramp up to its goal of mechanically thinning 50,000 acres of forest per year.

“We really don’t see another path to accelerating thinning on 4FRI,” said Travis Bruner, Arizona forests program director with the Grand Canyon Trust.

In explaining the decision, Forest Service officials said the agency hasn’t been able to gather enough information on the yield and value of the timber that would be covered in a new contract. Nor has it been able to do necessary modeling on what sort of industry -- from biomass plants to OSB facilities -- could make a contract financially viable and sustainable by providing nearby demand for wood.

4FRI looks to reboot

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

Financial difficulties have plagued the first large-scale 4FRI contract, awarded in 2012. The company has failed to reach anywhere near the expected scale of work, with just 10,600 acres thinned out of 300,000 that were expected to be completed by 2022. The contractor still hasn’t built any major wood processing facility near Flagstaff or Williams, which has long been promised.

The Forest Service also wants to collaborate more with the state and counties on what sort of incentives, subsidies or land parcels could be included in a contract to make it more attractive to a company, said Henry Provencio, the innovations and efficiencies coordinator with 4FRI.

“It’s about timing. We’re still trying to figure out exactly where and what kind and what tools are available to issue a (request for proposal),” Provencio said. “We’ve still got more questions than answers.”

Diverging from the initiative’s stakeholders, Provencio described the Forest Service’s commitment to a December timeline for issuing the request for proposals as “somewhat aspirational in nature.”

But several of those stakeholders said the whole point of issuing a request for proposals now is to get answers the Forest Service said it lacks. Answers about how companies say they could ramp up forest thinning, how they could process the low-value biomass like branches and treetops, what resources they could bring to the table and what they would need in terms of assistance or other incentives.

Put simply, a request for proposals would be an opportunity to hear from industry on their thoughts for scaling up and increasing the pace of restoration, Coconino County Supervisor Art Babbott wrote in an email.

Flake visits Flagstaff to check on forest

U.S.Sen. Jeff Flake's boots crunched over the chipped remains of branches, needles and treetops as the Arizona politician paid a visit to a forest restoration project west of Flagstaff Friday morning. The Observatory Mesa site had recently been thinned to remove overcrowded ponderosa pine trees, helping improve forest health and reduce severe fire risk.

A lack of wood processing industry also isn’t a good excuse for delaying the issuing of a contract, Pascal Berlioux, a stakeholder on 4FRI and executive director of the Eastern Arizona Counties Organization, wrote in an email.

Instead, Berlioux suggested the contract is exactly what’s needed to create conditions to attract industry.

What is clear is the status quo isn’t going to work. The Forest Service’s current modeling shows a majority of the acreage available for a large-scale thinning project on the Coconino and Kaibab national forests will result in negative revenues for any loggers who take it on. That’s due to the type and density of trees available to cut, the requirement to remove biomass and the distance to existing mills, a biomass plant or other wood processing facilities, Provencio said.

With the first large-scale 4FRI contract still a fresh memory, the Forest Service is trying to do things differently this time around, he said.

“We’re doing our due diligence and part of that is we’re not going to arbitrarily throw a contract out there until we are better prepared to get to a successful contract,” Provencio said. “We basically came to the realization that the better information we could provide (potential contractors), the better proposals we could receive and that we’re not quite ready to give them all the information.”

The agency also plans to hire a contractor to evaluate business proposals when the Forest Service does issue the thinning contract, he said. Such an expert can better evaluate return on investment and probability of success, Provencio said.

Others support the Forest Service’s decision to hit the brakes because state regulators are simultaneously moving to implement a requirement for utilities to get a certain percentage of their energy from biomass power. That would finally provide a large-scale, sustained and profitable use for biomass that right now is an expensive waste product for contractors, said Brad Worsley, who owns the state’s only utility-scale biomass power plant near Snowflake. Having that market in place would allow him to better respond to a Forest Service request for proposals, Worsley said.

The encouraging sign, Berlioux wrote, is that more robust and candid discussions are happening between the Forest Service and governmental and private partners.

“Therefore, there is hope that a breakthrough may happen,” Berlioux wrote.

Jake Bacon, Arizona Daily Sun 

Pictured from left to right, Jake Greenbaum, Rikayla Scholl, Emily Millar, Sami Ensley, McKenzie Sorensen and Austin Jones all jump for a group photo Monday afternoon at Buffalo Park. The group, all Northern Arizona University students had gone to the park to take photos in the snow. Flagstaff's Pulliam Airport had received 1.6 inches of snow as of 5 p.m. Monday with up to 4 inches expected through Tuesday morning.  Arizona Snowbowl received 4 inches of snow throughout the day on Monday, with 4 more inches expected overnight. 

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Flagstaff Police release video of Plaza Vieja shooting

Flagstaff Police have released the police camera footage from five officers at the shooting in Plaza Vieja on Feb. 9. The footage does not show the suspect clearly, and the suspect's body on the ground is blacked out immediately after shots are fired. But the shots fired by the officers can be heard as can their instructions to the suspect and comments in the aftermath of the shooting as they search for the gun, which was found in the bed of the suspect's nearby pickup truck.  

According to reports released by the department, officers responded to a call from a woman about a man with a gun at an apartment complex on West Coconino Avenue just before 9 p.m. Feb. 9. The woman said the man, identified as John K. Hammelton, 78, had accused her of taking the keys to his vehicle several days before. He came to her apartment again on Feb. 9 and asked for his keys and displayed a small silver handgun.

The woman locked the door and called the police while Hammelton continued to ring her doorbell. 

In the first video, Officer Daniel Beckwith, one of the first officers on the scene, repeatedly asks Hammelton to drop the gun, put his hands in the air and not swing the gun around. He warns two other officers who are moving around the building to outflank Hammelton, that Hammelton may be waving the gun in their direction.

"I can't see what's in his right hand. It's something silver I can't make it out," Beckwith says in the video.

Officer Michael Worley replies, "He's putting it in his right pocket. That is definitely a gun."

According to Worley's report, Hammelton later pulled the gun from his pocket and waved it at two officers who had run around the back side of the apartment complex in an effort to outflank him.

Beckwith continues to call for Hammelton to drop the weapon.

"(expletive)I'm going to have to fire," Beckwith says. "It is definitely a gun. He is swinging it around. I have a clear shot. He has the gun in his hand. He will not drop it."

According to Worley's report, Hammelton waved the gun toward the two officers on South Sycamore at least three times.

"If you bring that up one more time, I will shoot you, drop it," Beckwith warns Hammelton.

When Hammelton doesn't respond and pointed the gun at the officers on South Sycamore Street,  Beckwith shot him.

In the second and third videos, Ofcs. Travis Rowden and Devin Hineman move around the far side of the building in order to cover Hammelton. The two officers are able to see Hammelton and set up behind a series of dumpsters.

"We have to taze him or something." Rowden says.

To which Hineman responds,"Hey, you want to try and taze him. Hold on."

A few seconds later, shots ring out.

After the shooting, Hineman tells another officer that he saw Hammelton wave a gun in his direction and tell the officers "Leave me alone."

Right after the shooting the officers can be heard on several videos asking where the gun is. The gun was eventually located in the back of the pickup truck next to where Hammelton had been standing.

According to a police report, one of the neighbors said she peeked out her door during the incident and saw Hammelton standing next to his truck with the gun dangling from his finger. Another neighbor reported that he saw Hammelton holding the gun in his hand.

Another neighbor, Erik Rothrock, told police that he believed Hammelton was suffering from dementia. He said Hammelton had accused him of taking his keys as well.

Photo Credit: Andrew Wisniewski 

Runners break away at the start of the Agassiz Climb of the Kahtoola Uphill race on Saturday at Snowbowl. Among the pack are the race's winner, Mike Popejoy (right), along with Brian Tinder (2nd place, bib 112), Tanner Carothers (5th, 81), Kristi Knecht (6th, 122) and Mark Thurston (9th, 111).

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Flagstaff City Council accepts Copley's resignation, appoints Goodrich acting city manager

The Flagstaff City Council unanimously appointed Barbara Goodrich as acting city manager at a special meeting Monday morning after accepting former city manager Josh Copley’s resignation.

Goodrich served as deputy city manager since August 2015, where she oversaw management services, economic vitality, real estate, information technology, water services and community development, city spokeswoman Jessica Drum said in a press release.

Goodrich has worked for the city for 17 years, as budget director, finance director and management services director.

Copley turned in his letter of resignation Wednesday, saying it was effective May 8 unless the city found a suitable replacement sooner. His resignation became effective Monday morning when it was accepted by the council.

In Copley’s resignation letter, he alleged “unprofessional and discourteous” treatment from two unnamed council members and complicity by the rest of the council.

“Over the course of the past few months, I have repeatedly been treated in an unprofessional and discourteous manner by two city council members who seem to be more concerned with their political ambitions and personal agendas than the good of the city as a whole,” Copley wrote in his letter of resignation.

“While I have come to expect this type of behavior from those two, I am deeply disappointed in the remainder of the council who appear to have chosen to succumb to unseemly tactics and renege on a commitment made to me to allow me the small courtesy of deciding when I would choose to retire,” he wrote. “As a leader, I would never think to treat my subordinates with such careless disregard and to allow this to pass without strenuous objection is a discredit to me and, vicariously, to all of the wonderful employees of our great city.”

The letter gave no specific examples, and when reached by phone Friday, Copley said he did not wish to give a statement at the time, and declined to  identify the councilmembers in question.

No councilmembers have spoken on the record on the substance of Copley's letter, either by identifying the pair or commenting on their behavior toward Copley.

“The city council wants to thank Josh Copley for his decades of exemplary service to the city of Flagstaff and its citizens,” said Mayor Coral Evans in a statement. “We have all the confidence in the abilities of Barbara Goodrich and look forward to continuing to serve the citizens of Flagstaff with integrity.”

Copley has been employed with the city for 33 years, including 26 years with the Flagstaff Police Department, where he worked his way up from patrol officer to deputy police chief.

Copley was appointed city manager in August of 2015, originally for a term that was scheduled to expire in February 2017. His contract was then extended to last through February 2019.

He was originally appointed for only 18 months, while the council was supposed to search for a permanent city manager.

He took over after interim city manager Jeff Meilbeck’s contract ended. Meilbeck served as interim after Kevin Burke, the former city manager who served in the position for seven years, left for a job in Paradise Valley.

The city manager’s duties include preparing the agenda ahead of city council meetings, ensuring ordinances and provisions of city-granted franchises, leases, contracts, permits and privileges are observed, hiring and firing city employees, preparing an annual proposed budget, advising the city council about the needs of the city and other responsibilities pertaining to city leadership.