Controversy continues to dog the award of the historic Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI), the best hope for thinning millions of acres of fire-prone forests surrounding Rim Country.
This week Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin raised questions about whether the winning bidder actually had any investors or the money needed to fulfill the contract to thin 300,000 acres in the next 10 years.
“They hoped to draw investors by getting the contract,” Martin said at Tuesday’s board of supervisors meeting.
The Forest Service recently awarded an initial contract to thin and restore some 300,000 acres in the Kaibab, Coconino, Apache-Sitgreaves and Tonto national forests. A diverse group that includes loggers, environmentalists and local officials like Martin spent years coming up with the plan to use timber companies to carry out landscape-scale restoration of ponderosa pine forests in northern Arizona.
The overall goal of 4FRI is to restore the structure, pattern and composition of fire-adapted ecosystems, which will reduce fuels while also improving forest health and natural diversity. The project aims to create sustainable ecosystems and industries in the long term. The restoration-based work opportunities are expected to create jobs across northern Arizona.
The Southwest Regional contracts office of the U.S. Forest Service selected Pioneer Forest Products as the contractor to perform treatments on the four forests.
Now, Pioneer Forest Products finds itself at the eye of the 4FRI storm.
Many stakeholders in the project have objected to the selection of Pioneer Forest Products, which has as a linchpin partner a former U.S. Forest Service official who many blame for the policies that have contributed to the area’s declining, fire-prone forests.
Critics said Pioneer offered millions less than another bidder, which had also agreed to spend $500,000 annually to monitor the environmental effects of the thinning project.
Supervisor Martin has played a pivotal role in the 4FRI project. At the July 17 meeting of the board, she said she had learned that Pioneer Forest Products had no investors when it made its bid to be the 4FRI contractor and still has no investors.
She said she would seek answers about the bid award from U.S. Department of Agriculture officials when she visits Washington, D.C. on July 26.
The Forest Service said the bid was based on many factors, especially on the company’s ability to turn the small trees choking the forest into profitable products.
Pioneer CEO Herman Hauck said the company will thin 5,000 acres this year as it gears up and brings into operation a wood mill in Winslow that will employ 600 people. The project will employ another 400 people doing the actual logging work.
The Winslow mill will convert trees greater than five inches in diameter into high-value lumber and laminate wood panels used for doors, windows and specialized components.