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Williams 4FRI Task Order

Ponderosa pine trees are fed through an industrial chipper at a tree thinning operation on the Kaibab National Forest overseen by Good Earth Power AZ. Good Earth holds the largest contract on the Four Forest Restoration Initiative but has struggled to thin the thousands of acres it promised.

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.

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.

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.

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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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