The U.S. Forest Service sent waves of shock and frustration across northern Arizona with an announcement that it would be going back to the drawing board on phase 2 of the Four Forest Restoration Project (4FRI).
Forest officials had said the phase 2 contract to thin hundreds of thousands of acres of at-risk forest across northern Arizona would be awarded to a company sometime this summer.
But after nearly two years of work and numerous changes to the phase 2 contract and request for proposals (RFP), the effort is back to square one.
Novo Power president Brad Worsley said he was shocked when he heard the news Tuesday. Novo Power operates a biomass power plant in Snowflake and had been one of several companies competing for the contract.
“To just come to this point, and cancel RFP, I was shocked. I knew that it was always a possibility that it could happen, but at this late stage I certainly was not expecting that. I was truly surprised,” Worsley said. “The second RFP, to me, has been a disaster.”
The project, one of the largest forest restoration efforts in the country, seeks to treat millions of acres of forested land across the Coconino, Kaibab, Apache-Sitgreaves and Tonto national forests in order to improve forest health and reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires.
But Worsley, who is also an active member of the 4FRI stakeholder group, said in his view the cancellation of the contract puts the future of 4FRI in real jeopardy.
“I don’t know if I would go as far as to say it’s the death knell [for 4FRI] but it is significant,” Worsley told the Arizona Daily Sun.
After the announcement was made, it was criticized by both of Arizona’s senators and Gov. Doug Ducey.
“The federal government’s lack of action is frustrating. The federal mismanagement of our forests poses an ongoing risk," Ducey said in a statement. "But Arizonans should know that we remain proactive in our pursuit of forest health and disaster prevention. We will continue to work with federal and community partners and safety personnel to protect people, pets and property.”
In an email, Forest Service spokesperson Adam Livermore said they appreciate the public interest in the project given the risk of catastrophic wildfire.
“We recognize that all of those interested in this project see and understand the value of the working together to mitigate the risk of catastrophic wildfire,” Livermore wrote. “Throughout this process our partners have continuously shown support for this project. We are tremendously grateful for the support and interest expressed by everyone.”
According to the Forest Service, the decision to cancel the contract was made after officials decided the current contract didn’t sufficiently meet the needs of industry partners, making it too risky to be successful.
In its most recent form, the contract included 520,000 acres that a company would be brought on to thin. But the Forest Service could not give companies the necessary assurances that they would be supported should something occur that reduced the total number of acres.
For example, if a forest fire destroyed a portion of those acres, there appears to have been little in the contract that would stop the company involved from being left holding the bag.
Worsley said a contract that would involve huge investments in new infrastructure on the part of industry partners, without the knowledge that the Forest Service would cover the cost if disaster struck or funding ran out, was the big issue.
But Worsley said it shouldn’t have taken this long before the Forest Service knew whether could make those guarantees.
“That's something that they should have known upfront and should have either not started the RFP or ended it much sooner, before there was significant investment of time and dollars by those that bid into the RFP,” Worsley said. “So to me, if the Forest Service was never prepared to do that, to actually guarantee this, then this was a bit of a disingenuous process anyway.”
Livermore said now that the most recent contract has been canceled, they intend to create a second contract for phase 2 and move through the process once more.
“It is our intent to move quickly. Lessons learned in this process will facilitate our ability to regroup and move forward. We seek input from our partners, stakeholders, industry and elected officials and consider all options,” Livermore wrote.
But after this week, Worsley said he wonders how successful a second process may be from the outset.
“I asked the question: who's going to participate? They just showed the exceptionally long process to actually put out an RFP, to assess an RFP, [...] and then they canceled it. So even after there was a handful of players that persisted in the process, they were rewarded with a cancellation,” Worsley said.
This does not represent the first setback for the troubled forest initiative.
The nearly 10-year-old phase 1 of the project had been designed to treat about 30,000 acres each year and 300,000 through the life of the project. But only a fraction of that acreage has seen thinning, although officials say things have improved with the opening of a new sawmill in Bellemont.
In the wake of the decision, both Senators Kyrsten Sinema and Mark Kelly released statements criticizing the cancellation.
Kelly said the forest service had “blindsided Arizonans” with their decision.
“This is unacceptable and is only going to further erode Arizonans’ trust in the Forest Service,” said Kelly.
Meanwhile, Sinema said the canceled contract undermines years of work all the while the risk of wildfires and post-fire flooding only increases.
“The Forest Service must take immediate action and provide Arizonans certainty that there will be no further delays and that the agency will fulfill its obligations to our state,” Sinema said.
Adrian Skabelund can be reached by phone at (928) 556-2261, by email at email@example.com or on Twitter at @AdrianSkabelund.