The 2.4 million-acre Four Forest Restoration Initiative isn’t the first major forest thinning project in Arizona. In 2004, nearly a decade before 4FRI began, the 10-year White Mountain Stewardship Project revved into gear in eastern Arizona’s Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest.
The project’s 150,000-acre goal was at the time the largest and longest running stewardship contract in the country and the work was pioneering in many ways. A new report about the project describes its work as groundbreaking in reviving the wood products industry, fostering collaboration and spearheading new ways to deal with small-diameter wood.
At the same time, however, the report’s assessment of the project’s socioeconomic impact shows that it faced a host of challenges.
The document details how many thought the project’s single contractor, Forest Service-subsidized model created a monopoly and was slow to jumpstart the timber industry while less than half of the acres originally planned ended up getting thinned, despite an enormous cost to the Forest Service.
With 4FRI ramping up just as the White Mountain project was winding down, the eastern Arizona thinning work presented an ideal learning opportunity. And yet, as 4FRI heads into its fifth year, some of the same challenges and struggles are resurfacing in this even bigger, more ambitious forest thinning initiative.
In 2004, the entire White Mountain Stewardship Project contract was awarded to one company, Future Forests LLC, which paid contractors to cut small-diameter trees and biomass and then sold the wood products to various finished products producers.
But with that project, as well as 4FRI, economic challenges were a constant theme. The Forest Service paid Future Forests $500 per acre to thin the forest and because of that cost, ended up only being able to fund half the 150,000 acres, as was initially promised.
The 4FRI plan lies on the opposite end of the spectrum, aiming to complete large-scale forest restoration with zero subsidy from the Forest Service, said Dick Fleishman, 4FRI operations coordinator. That model is running into challenges too, though, with primary contractor Good Earth Power AZ facing multiple complaints and lawsuits over late payments and non payments to contractors and employees. The company has thinned just 7,416 acres or 7 percent of the acreage it promised it would complete by this time.
And even without the direct subsidy, the Forest Service has put $90 million into 4FRI since 2011.
Both projects have also seen grumbling over the fact that one single company was guaranteed vast tracts of acreage, leaving many others out.
Many companies buying timber described the situation as a monopoly because the contractor, Future Forest, lacked competition for acreage and could set prices at whatever it desired, the White Mountain report said.
Many loggers in and around the 4FRI area have raised similar concerns that much of the logging-ready acreage is being put into Good Earth’s contract. That changed recently after eastern Arizona businesses and politicians mounted a full court press to pressure the Forest Service to change where acreage was being awarded.
INDUSTRY JUMP START
While both thinning projects promised to restart Arizona’s timber industry, both struggled to do so.
On the White Mountain Stewardship Project, a cluster of forest industry businesses that could cut and then use all parts of the tree didn’t come together until the very end of the 10-year project, said Anne Mottek Lucas, a consultant and one of the authors of the report.
So far, 4FRI also has failed to spur the desired industry growth on the Coconino and Kaibab national forests, Forest Service officials said.
The company NewPac Fibre opened one sawmill in Williams in the fall of 2014, but nothing else has followed. Good Earth’s Williams mill has processed only a handful of loads of lumber and is currently out of operation, according to a former manager. The company’s plans for another $80 million mill in the area have yet to materialize.
Fleishman and 4FRI chief executive Scott Russell, emphasized that there were positive lessons learned from the White Mountain thinning project.
Seeing the limitations of Forest Service subsidies spurred the agency to craft 4FRI’s plan with adequate acreage and a long enough time period to make it viable for industry to thin hundreds of thousands of acres without payment from the Forest Service, they said. While work is going slowly, the agency is net positive in terms of receiving payments for acres treated, Fleishman said.
Seeing the fallacies of a single contractor system, the Forest Service’s 4FRI plan calls for 20,000 acres to be put out for bid to other logging companies each year in addition to the acreage going to Good Earth.
The collaboration and consensus-building that developed throughout the White Mountain Stewardship Project has carried over into 4FRI and resulted in many benefits including the current agreement on retention of large, old trees, Russell said.
The former project also made the Forest Service realize it had to solicit more input from industry players about the business viability of its timber offerings and create a plan for continued acreage offerings after the contract’s end date so businesses aren’t left high and dry, officials said.
“The other piece is us looking at getting smarter about the next step, somehow creating conditions to get this done,” Russell said. “We’re making a lot of efforts to get smarter about industry.”