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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.

Flake was there to learn from state and federal officials about progress on forest restoration in the region, as well as hear about a recent test by Salt River Project to burn a small percentage of biomass along with the coal.

Flake's visit also happened to land in the same month that, two years ago, the senator stopped by the Kaibab National Forest with a similar goal of checking on forest thinning for the 2.4 million-acre Four Forest Restoration Initiative, or 4FRI.

Making a convenient marker of time, Flake’s visit highlighted that the 4FRI project is still struggling to overcome many of the roadblocks and challenges it faced two years ago. While the initiative has counted some successes, including a steady climb in acreage being mechanically treated on its east side, it still has failed to meet important benchmarks, including the goal of thinning 50,000-acres per year and finding an economic use for small-diameter trees and small fuels that crowd the region’s forests.

SRP’s biomass test burns, which took place over the winter, have been one attempt at finding a large-scale, profitable and sustainable use for biomass from forest thinning activities related to 4FRI. So far, the Forest Service has struggled to establish other viable options, said Scott Russell, 4FRI’s chief executive.

SRP officials said the utility still needs to do more testing before making a long-term decision, but in terms of potential economic hurdles, the cost of the biomass-coal mixture is two to three times higher than burning coal alone, said Ronald Klawitter, an analyst with SRP. The supply of biomass from logging operations in the region’s forests also would need to increase if SRP were to scale up biomass burning operations beyond a test phase, Klawitter said.

The concept of burning biomass for power is starting to gain traction among state regulators as well. The Arizona Corporation Commission plans to hold a hearing in October on market development opportunities and commercially viable forest bioenergyn options.

On Friday, Flake expressed support for the state’s one existing biomass power plant and for SRP’s pilot effort. In terms of the higher cost of biomass power, it needs to be reconsidered in the context of the benefit the energy source provides to the forest, Flake said.

“You can't just look at it in terms of cost megawatt power, it’s how much acreage are we protecting here?” Flake said. “You don't look at it just in terms of the cost of power, you look at it in terms of alternative costs we would incur if we weren't partnering with businesses and if the federal government had to foot the whole bill for thinning and management of our forests. So it has to be looked at differently.”

Flake addressed what has become one of the most obvious challenges to 4FRI’s progress: the company that holds the largest thinning contract. The company got new leadership and changed its name from Good Earth Power to NewLife Forest Products this year.

In 2015, Flake called the company “frustrating” saying it was missing deadlines and not moving as quickly as they needed to.

“They seem to have another reason every time we talk to them,” Flake said at the time. 

On Friday, his message hadn’t changed much and neither had Good Earth-turned-NewLife’s trajectory. Between August 2015 and August 2017, the company thinned about 4,500 acres, despite the fact that the then-CEO said it would thin 16,000 acres per year in 2016 alone.

On Friday, Flake said: “We're all very frustrated by it, we've been talking a lot with the Forest Service saying you'd better be finding ways around this and to actually not depend on Good Earth keeping their promises, because they haven't yet."

Both Flake and his counterpart Sen. John McCain have continued to press the Forest Service to focus on offering more thinning contracts in the White Mountains region of the 4FRI footprint where several logging companies already have well-established operations.

During Friday’s visit, Flake touted collaboration and innovation and urged the Forest Service to be realistic in evaluating future 4FRI contracts, but he ended his assessment of the region’s forest restoration work with a plea more than a plan.

“We’ve really got to make 4FRI work. It is the model for how we're going to manage our forests nationwide, or in the West at least, and if it doesn't work we're in a heap of trouble,” Flake said. “That’s why there's a lot of pressure here.”

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Emery Cowan can be reached at (928) 556-2250 or ecowan@azdailysun.com

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Environment, Health and Science Reporter

Emery Cowan writes about science, health and the environment for the Arizona Daily Sun, covering everything from forest restoration to endangered species recovery efforts.

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