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Late last month, Good Earth Power AZ CEO Jason Rosamond stood in front of more than 50 attendees at a monthly meeting on the Four Forest Restoration Initiative. Academics, timber industry representatives and heads of conservation organizations listened as Rosamond outlined his company’s latest progress on thinning northern Arizona’s forests. Good Earth has the largest contract on the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, with a goal of thinning 300,000 acres by 2022. At the core of Rosamond’s presentation was a roadmap for how the company will accelerate its operations in 2016, including plans for an $80 million mill in Coconino County Rosamond said is expected to be up and running by May 2017.

Many who were in the audience remain skeptical of Rosamond’s promises though, saying his projections just don’t pencil out. They say the massive mill is not a smart investment at this point in the company’s contract, isn't on a realistic timeline and represents a ramp-up in logging during a 12-onth period that is well beyond what 4FRI stakeholders originally supported.

Already the company is far behind schedule on its work in the forest, having thinned less than 10 percent of what it was supposed to have completed by now.

While the Forest Service closely monitors Good Earth’s thinning progress on the 4FRI contract, the agency does not oversee or regulate the company’s business operations, 4FRI spokesperson Brienne Pettit clarified in an email.

Here's a look at the facts behind Good Earth's claims and projections:

“Williams mill is running at about...40,000 board feet per shift” - Jason Rosamond at Jan. 27 4FRI Stakeholders meeting

Good Earth’s Williams mill has never produced 40,000 board feet of lumber per shift and has only processed one load of lumber to date, mill manager Jeremy Johnson said. Employees have been working diligently to fix worn-out parts and electrical problems that have plagued the mill, which was manufactured in the early 1960s, Johnson said.

“It won’t be long before we are doing 40,000 board feet per shift or more,” he said. "I am 100 percent confident that we are very close."

“The total investment required is $80 million and it will take until May of 2017 to be completed.” - Jason Rosamond at Jan. 27 4FRI Stakeholders meeting

Good Earth did not respond to questions about where it will locate its mill, but the building and planning departments at Coconino County, the city of Flagstaff and the city of Williams said they haven’t been contacted by the company to start a permitting process for a new mill.

The company had leased a 37-acre parcel in east Williams that it said would be the site of its new mill. However, all of the company’s permits and approvals for that property are invalid because they haven't been acted upon in 180 days, said Tim Pettit, the city’s chief building inspector.

Good Earth's promise to get such a large mill up and running by May 2017 is highly unlikely, according to estimates from Duane Vaagen, president of Vaagen Brothers Lumber. Vaagen said it would take three to three-and-a-half years to obtain permits, construct a mill of that size and ramp up to full production. The Washington-based company owns three mills in the Northwest.

“(The flagship mill is) actually planned to be 342 million board feet per year…. In 2017, that mill, once completed will need 240 loads of logs per day, so that will consume approximately 27,000 additional acres per year.” - Jason Rosamond at Jan. 27 4FRI Stakeholders meeting

To feed a 342 million-board-feet-per-year mill, Good Earth would have to thin about 76,000 acres per year, not 27,000 acres per year, based on Forest Service estimates on the volume of timber harvested from past thinning projects in the region.

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While thinning that amount of acreage annually would put Good Earth on track to complete its 300,000-acre contract before its 2022 deadline, it raises a red flag among several 4FRI stakeholders. That’s because such a plan would mean acres logged across the 4FRI footprint each year would far surpass 50,000 — the number stakeholders agreed would be an environmentally sustainable rate of thinning between all contractors working on the forest, not just Good Earth.

Ramping up beyond that agreed upon number risks a breakdown of 4FRI's broad base of support, said Pascal Berlioux, executive director of the Eastern Arizona Counties Organization.

Ken Ribelin, the president of High Desert Investment Company in Flagstaff, also questioned the need for another large mill. Ribelin, who has been in the logging business for 45 years, said 70 percent of the timber he harvests from the forest is small-diameter wood that would be better used for biopower, pellets or a kind of composite plywood known as OSB.

“These small pine trees don't make lumber. We need smallwood industry,” Ribelin said. “We're kind of past the day where we need more sawmills.”

Arizona’s lumber industry will be back in full force after a nearly 30-year hiatus… - Good Earth January newsletter

Good Earth’s projections of massive growth in Arizona’s timber industry elicited concern among conservationists who worked hard to establish agreement among various stakeholders about 4FRI's 50,000-acre-per-year thinning goal. Topography, vegetation type, wildlife habitat and forest density, were all considered in determining what would be “optimal and acceptable rate in terms of landscape scale restoration across the Mogollon Rim,” said the Grand Canyon Trust's Ethan Aumack, who participated in the process.

An escalation of logging in Arizona to where it was in its heyday — about 85,000 acres per year in 1984, for example — wasn’t the deal conservation groups agreed to, said Todd Schulke, with the Center for Biological Diversity.

“To say ‘we're going to log at the levels of the ’80s,’ that's just a recipe of going back to the same disagreements. I don't think (Good Earth) wants to do that, but they're fanning the flames,” Schulke said. “There is concern that if (Good Earth) is going to ramp up and maintain that level (of thinning), then the social license of the project evaporates.”

"The payback, we believe, is sufficient to pay off the mill within that five-year period. And therefore after that what we will be trying to do is ensure jobs." - Jason Rosamond at Jan. 27 4FRI Stakeholders meeting

Duane Vaagen of Vaagen Brothers Lumber wouldn’t speculate on whether Good Earth could make back its entire $80 million investment in five years, the time that would remain in its 4FRI contract if the mill is completed next May.

Vaagen did say that his company considered bidding on the 4FRI contract and ruled it out.

“We knew it was a 10-year project and we knew that was too short for the investment it would take for a mill that could get the job done,” he said.

“We get to about 1,000 staff by the end of 2017 once the flagship mill is completed” — Jason Rosamond at Jan. 27 4FRI Stakeholders meeting

Rosamond’s staffing projections would be a huge leap from the current forestry-related employment levels, according to data from the state’s Office of Employment and Population Statistics. While the office didn’t have statewide data on the number of people employed in the forestry industry, the most recent information available for Navajo, Apache and Coconino counties showed a total of 127 people work in the forestry industry.

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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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