Citing the major public safety threats posed by wildfires and post-fire flooding, Coconino County has hired its first forest restoration director.
The newly created position will focus largely on helping accelerate large-scale forest thinning projects deemed crucial to preventing catastrophic wildfires in the region.
The largest of those projects is the 2.4 million-acre Four Forest Restoration Initiative, or 4FRI, that has after more than six years failed to get even close to its goal of thinning 50,000 acres per year.
The new director position represents an attempt by Coconino County to support the development of a local forest products industry, which is crucial to ramping up tree thinning, County Supervisor Art Babbott said.
“It’s about coordination, facilitation and bringing understanding on how industries work together to achieve restoration objectives,” Babbott said.
Jay Smith, the man chosen for the job, comes to the county with more than two decades of experience in the private logging industry. Smith is also intimately familiar with the 4FRI project — he spent the past three years as the senior forester for the company that bears much of the responsibility for the slow pace of forest restoration in the forests around Flagstaff.
Smith said he applied for the county job to make more of an impact on forest restoration than he could working for NewLife Forest Products, formerly Good Earth Power, which holds the largest 4FRI contract for 300,000 acres. Over the past five years, the company has thinned just 9,800 of those acres or about 3 percent.
But Babbott and others who know Smith said the quality of his skills and experience shouldn’t be diminished by the poor performance of NewLife and Good Earth Power.
“I’ve never experienced with him any of the misleading statements that we had on a regular basis with (Good Earth Power) and NewLife,” said Pascal Berlioux, co-chair of the 4FRI stakeholder group and executive director of the Eastern Arizona Counties Organization. “From what I know he did a good job as a forester.”
James Perkins, a longtime logger in Williams, said he thought Smith would be “excellent” for the job and an asset to both the county and those working in the timber industry.
Much of NewLife’s current struggle to ramp up forest thinning is due to difficulty getting funding to build a sawmill, Smith said, and that wasn’t his area of focus. His work was managing operations in the woods.
He said the company’s lack of progress has been somewhat frustrating.
Now, part of his responsibility will be figuring out ways to support NewLife and other local timber businesses. Smith said his job will also include helping recruit forest product businesses to the area and finding uses for the high volumes of small-diameter logs and biomass produced by forest restoration. He said cross-laminated timber, oriented strand board, low-emission biomass incinerators and biomass power plants are all options that deserve further consideration.
The county could further support industry through employee training programs, renting out heavy equipment needed for logging road construction or helping find locations for new infrastructure like sawmills, Smith said.
He said he’d also like to help vet proposals for thinning or other restoration contracts with a business eye that those in government tend to lack.
Creating a position specifically focused on forest restoration is something not many other counties are doing, Babbott said.
“One of the challenges in government and the private sector is until you have someone who takes ownership of an initiative or project or priority it doesn't happen,” Babbott said. “This allows us to take that ownership and allows us to prioritize this and bring skills and capacity necessary to do our part."
Berlioux, who made a jump similar to Smith from the private sector to government in 2012, said the new position is a positive development.
“It makes complete sense for Coconino County to get seriously involved in the implementation of 4FRI, I’m very supportive of that,” Berlioux said. “It makes complete sense and I would say it's probably well overdue.”
Three candidates including Smith applied and made it through the application process for forest restoration director, according to county spokesman Matt Rudig. Total compensation for the position is $170,000 per year.