The contractor who won the biggest forest thinning contract in history says he’s lining up investors, drawing up plans and will start cutting the first 5,000 acres of a 300,000-acre contract early next year.
However, skepticism remains deep among local officials who spent years working on behalf of the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI).
Pioneer Forest Products plans to build a complex in Winslow that can turn millions of small trees into finger-jointed furniture and biodiesel fuel. The backers of the massive project hope it will not only restore ecological health to millions of tree-choked acres, but also protect forest communities from catastrophic wildfire.
However, the task has been complicated by the closure of one of the few existing mills in the region in the White Mountains and the persistent criticism of the contract award by local officials and environmental groups that initially developed the collaborative 4FRI approach.
Still, Pioneer officials insist they’ll be ready to start cutting in January, if they can use existing wood processing plants while they get financing and build their own mill and biofuel production plant in Winslow.
“Our engineers have a plan that is compatible with zoning requirements in the area,” said Herman Hauck, president of Pioneers Forest Products. “We have been working with Winslow city officials and engineers on details of the site layout and design to reach agreement on a layout that is compatible with zoning requirements in the area. We have a preliminary site layout with building locations and equipment.”
“We’re on track,” said Marlin Johnson, a former high-ranking Forest Service official who has teamed with Hauck to win the Pioneer bid. Johnson’s involvement has already proven controversial because he spent years battling environmental groups when he ran the Forest Service timber cutting program in the Southwest. “One of our group is a venture capitalist who is putting all this information about our needs and sales into a form that investment boards can understand. We have a lot of them interested in the numbers for this project.”
However, Johnson doubted the project could make any use of a Snowflake recycling and bio-energy plant recently slated for closure. The mill used to cut up logs, but its owners several years ago converted to a paper recycling mill. Next door, a power plant supplies electricity by burning slash and small trees, part of the existing White Mountain Restoration Project. The mill employs more than 300 people in an area with a 14 percent unemployment rate.
Forest Service 4FRI coordinator Henry Provencio in an interview said he hopes the Forest Service can shift early 4FRI contracts to the White Mountains to perhaps provide a wood supply that might convince owners to spend millions retooling the Snowflake mill and keeping the bio-power plant in operation.
But Johnson said, “We don’t see much opportunity there. The buildings are not what we need and they’re too far away from our wood supply. In terms of employees, they have some good, experienced people there and if they’re interested in moving to Winslow, that may work out.”
Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin remains doubtful that Pioneer can deliver. Martin has spent years helping to develop the 4FRI approach to using timber companies to thin millions of acres now dominated by small, fire-prone trees — often at densities 10 times normal.
“My belief is still that they have no financing to start with and they’ve not been able to find any — and with the products they have out there publicly, I don’t see how they can get financing. They are make-believe products. All the Forest Service said is they feel like they would be able to fulfill their obligations better than anybody else. There was no plan and the products are bogus.”
Martin said that no large scale program to turn small trees and brush into diesel fuel now exists, making that core portion of Pioneer’s bid speculative.
Moreover, she said that the finger-jointed, furniture-making mill will have to compete with similar overseas mills that rely on very cheap labor. Martin said she feared that Pioneer would fail to find investors and fail to develop a sustainable business model. Unfortunately, she said — the Forest Service didn’t know how to evaluate the economics of Pioneer’s proposal.
“To give the Forest Service credit — and I hate doing that —they’re not businessmen. You can sift through the lot of them and not find a single one that ever did anything but draw a paycheck. They have no clue what makes a business. I don’t think they had any way to make a good decision.”
Pioneer won the bid against a company that offered to pay the Forest Service millions more for the contract, while also providing more money to monitor whether the thinning plan was restoring forest ecosystems and reducing fire dangers. Martin and many others who helped develop the 4FRI approach criticized the Forest Service’s selection.
Martin fears the selection of Pioneer indicates the Forest Service has abandoned or watered down the agreement to focus the thinning project on trees larger than 16 inches in diameter — the old-growth, fire-resistant trees. A century ago, such trees dominated a grassy, wide-open, fire-adapted forest. Today, thickets of smaller trees have filled in beneath the remaining big trees, creating the potential for massive crown fires as ground fires climb the ladder of the small trees to the tops of the big trees.
The agreement between pro-timber officials like Martin and old-growth advocates like the Centers for Biological Diversity on a thinning plan that spared trees more than 16 inches in diameter was crucial to breaking the legal logjam that has bedeviled forest management for the past 20 years.
Martin said the selection of Pioneer and the Forest Service’s refusal to use the 16-inch diameter limit for most of the thinning projects threatens to unravel the consensus that represented the best hope for the 4FRI approach. The Forest Service’s decision to award a contract that didn’t build in money to monitor the effects could prove fatal, she fears.
“The outfit they didn’t pick had something like $5 million worth of monitoring money in their bid. The Forest Service doesn’t have any money — they can talk all day about monitoring, but they’ll never monitor. They say ‘we make a decision, we assume it’s the right decision,’ and they never look back. But if they were to assume they might be wrong and then monitor to make sure they’re right — we’d be in a whole different position. So they rejected the company that agreed not to cut anything bigger than 15 inches in diameter so that whoever got the bid wouldn’t go and cherry pick the big trees and be gone.”
Johnson said that the Forest Service will determine which trees the company can cut, but that the business plan calls for making enough money on the small trees to cover the cost of the thinning. He said the contract will allow Pioneer to cut larger trees as well — between about 5 and 10 percent of the total trees cut by volume. Those will consist of trees pruned from big-tree thickets and big trees removed for ecological reasons — like pines that have invaded a meadow, he said.
“The Forest Service is going to designate the trees they want out,” said Johnson. “At the start, they’ll mark them. It’ll be very black and white.”
Once the subcontractors hired by Pioneer understand how to restore a fire-resistant forest with a healthy mixture of meadows, aspen stands, healthy springs and riparian areas and areas for wildlife like goshawks and Mexican Spotted Owls, the crews can work more independently — without the expensive preliminary process of marking every tree they can cut, said Johnson.
“The Forest Service will give pretty detailed written prescriptions as to which trees they want and we’ll give that to the operator and we will check them very closely — as will the Forest Service,” said Johnson.
Provencio, who has spent the past several years working with people like Martin in developing the 4FRI approach, said the key to the project lies in training the contractors to create the diverse, resilient forest that existed a century ago, before logging, grazing and fire suppression caused dramatic changes. Frequent, low-intensity fires shaped that forest, leaving some thick clumps of trees, meadows, healthy riparian areas fed by water now soaked up by the thickets of small trees. That pre-settlement forest had both thick patches that hadn’t burned in years and grassy, wide-open vistas with big trees that had survived dozens of fires in their long lives.
The old timber sale program for the Forest Service generally focused on marking sales on which the loggers could make money, which usually meant focusing on the big trees. But 4FRI remains focused on restoring that open, healthy pre-settlement forest.
“It’s going to be different. It’s going to focus on restoration. It’s going to focus on more retention of large trees in groups and clumps. The idea is that once folks kind of get the hang of it, they’ll work much more independently and much faster — and when you’re a contractor, time is money,” Provencio said.
Martin said she hopes she’s wrong about Pioneer’s plan, but fears she’s right. “There are no performance measures of any kind attached to the contract. No accountability. The accountability is did they get the planning done, did they have enough meetings — but not the outcome. That’s the frustration.”
Provencio noted that the regional office in Albuquerque made the final selection, based on the criteria developed by the local team. “This is the horse we picked, so this is the horse we’re riding. At this point, it’s not like there’s an alternative. The decision has been made and we’re going to do everything we can to make it successful.”