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The company that holds the largest contract on the 2.4 million-acre Four Forest Restoration Initiative is moving forward with a commercial composting operation that will help use up the massive amounts of woody biomass produced from its tree thinning work.

The move comes nearly two years after contractor Good Earth Power AZ first took steps to pursue composting tree limbs, needles, tops and small trunks -- collectively called biomass or slash -- by entering into a partnership with Flagstaff-based Roots Composting.

After facing zoning ordinance roadblocks on its initial plan to produce commercial compost on a property in Williams, Good Earth received approval from the Coconino County Planning and Zoning Commission on Wednesday to start up such an operation on a 40-acre site in Valle, just to the east of Highway 64.

The property, which is surrounded by state trust land and residential areas, had historically been operated as a part of the Black Mesa coal slurry pipeline and is partially occupied by an APS substation.

Kevin Ordean, co-founder of Roots Composting and now the director of soils at Good Earth, said chipped biomass from the forest provides the carbon component of successful compost while organic food waste collected from places like coffee shops, grocery stores and restaurants provides the nitrogen component. The material will be stored in long, large piles, left to “cook” for about four months, then dried, sent through screens and bagged to be sent off to customers, according to Ordean’s permit application.

At full capacity, Good Earth estimated the operation will employ 15 people and will see up to 30 truck trips per day.

While expressing some concerns about the safety risks posed by large trucks turning into and out of the property from Highway 64, planning and zoning commissioners all expressed support for furthering forest restoration in the region. They approved Good Earth’s two-year temporary use permit on a 5 to 3 vote.

BIOMASS BOTTLENECK

Many of those involved with 4FRI agree that biomass is a major bottleneck for make progress on the restoration project. Without finding a way to add value to the woody matter, it remains a costly byproduct of forest thinning that makes the endeavor much less economic for private logging companies to pursue.

Good Earth looks at the composting project as only one of several strategies it is pursuing to process woody biomass from the forest, said Adam Cooley, director of manufacturing and sales with the company. The company’s contract with the Forest Service requires it to remove the biomass created from thinning acres. And for every ton of saw logs Good Earth cuts and harvests, it produces more than a ton of biomass, according to a 2016 presentation by Good Earth’s Jason Rosamond.

On Wednesday, Cooley said Good Earth has solutions to process all of the biomass produced from its thinning operations that he is “not at liberty to disclose” at this time.

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“We do have avenues to move all of the slash, all of the biomass in the plans,” Cooley said. “Do we have infrastructure in place at moment to do it? No. But we have to put it in and we have the funding behind us to do that now.”

A NEW PAGE?

Several citizens who spoke at Wednesday night’s planning and zoning hearing mentioned Good Earth’s troubled track record as reason for the commission to take a hard look at the company’s temporary use application.

Since it received the 300,000-acre 4FRI Phase 1 contract in September 2013, Good Earth has thinned a total of 8,332 acres. That is far less than the 45,000 acres-per-year rate the company had originally told the Forest Service it would reach by 2017.

Good Earth has faced at least two lawsuits from former consultants and contractors over the past two years. The bigger lawsuit was lodged by its former timber manager, Campbell Global, that alleged Good Earth had breached the companies’ contract and racked up $3 million in unpaid fees. Under a settlement reached late last year, Good Earth agreed to pay Campbell Global about $1.3 million.

Good Earth also was investigated twice by the Department of Labor’s Wage and Hour Division and ordered to pay $44,000 in back wages after one of its subcontractors failed to pay the correct prevailing wage and fringe benefits to nine workers. It was fined another $9,000 by the Arizona Division of Occupational Safety and Health last year for an incident where a mill worker got his arm caught and nearly ripped off in a running machine.

Cooley acknowledged that the company has had its difficulties, but he said things are looking up. Starting in November, the company received additional investors and brought on additional management as well as individuals with experience in the timber industry in the Northwest, Cooley said. The company has “molded how we approach business and how we approach this contract,” he said.

On the east side of 4FRI, the company has shut down and is doing “extensive upgrades” to its Lumberjack sawmill in Heber. Once those upgrades happen, Cooley anticipates the mill will ramp up to a minimum run rate of 100,000 board feet per shift, which represents three to four times what the mill was doing before it was shut down for upgrades. Eventually the mill will go to two shifts, he said.

Good Earth’s plans also include building a sawmill to cut small-diameter trees that will be located on the west side of the 4FRI project, which encompasses the area around Flagstaff and Williams, Cooley said.

With new infrastructure, Good Earth is accelerating operations to get to the point of being able to harvest and process 30,000 acres per year by the first part of 2018, he said.

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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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