The U.S. Forest Service’s choice of an out-of-state contractor to thin 300,000 acres of overgrown, fire-prone forests has drawn a seemingly universal chorus of complaints from groups closest to the process.
The selection of Pioneer Associates to undertake the largest thinning and forest restoration project in Forest Service history prompted protests by both environmental groups and county officials.
The conservation groups worried mostly about whether the contractor will go after big trees instead of focusing on small trees.
The county officials mostly worried about whether the whole effort will collapse because Pioneer’s bid depends on a commercially untested method of turning brush and tree limbs into diesel fuel.
U.S. Forest Service officials tried to calm the storm this week, insisting that the Flagstaff-based forest restoration team will train the contactor and supervise the harvesting operations, based on the guidelines originally developed by a coalition of environmental groups and local officials.
Henry Provencio, head of the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) monitoring group for the Forest Service, said, “this idea that they go through a little training and it’s pretty much hands off, that is not the case. There will be a lot of scrutiny as well as the multi-party monitoring group, in terms of how these things go.”
Gov. Jan Brewer, Congressman Paul Gosar, Senators John McCain and Jon Kyl all put out statements praising the contract award last week.
However, the most strident criticism of the contract selection came from precisely those outside officials on that monitoring group who spent years hashing out a consensus on how to restore forest health and reduce wildfire dangers by sparing the big trees and making it profitable for timber companies to remove the brush and small trees.
Most of the critics wondered why the Forest Service didn’t pick Arizona Forest Restoration Products (AZFRP), which helped develop the small-tree approach, promised to spend $500,000 annually evaluating the impact on wildlife and offered to pay the Forest Service $9 million more than Pioneer.
Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin filed a sharply worded protest complaining that the 4FRI bidding process threatens to perpetuate a century of “failed federal policy and management direction” in the forests.
“From start to finish, the 4FRI request for proposals is an absolute reflection of that failed policy and clearly perpetuates the process right down to the selection of a contract that appears to include a crony that, as a high-ranking United States Forest Service employee, helped craft and establish that very wrong policy and management direction.”
She added that the winning bid based its economics on a plan to use young, knotty pines to make furniture and on the assumption it could build a plant that would convert brush and limbs into cellulosic biodiesel, “a process that already represents several spectacular government-subsidized business failures.”
Martin concluded, “It is my prediction that the USFS will spend the next 10 years following this same path with this latest contract. I expect them to begin by cutting big trees in the ‘existing self stock’ and may well be out of business or the contract be put on hold before they ever get to the small stuff — which is the threat to our remaining, sickly forests.”
Provencio said that he wasn’t directly involved in picking Pioneer, although his group developed the criteria on which the bids were based. However, he said that the whole point of the contract was to find a company that could turn a profit on thinning millions of acres without a taxpayer subsidy.
“We share those concerns. We echoed those concerns — exactly,” said Provencio of Martin’s concern with the economic viability of the contract. “It’s not the Forest Service’s intention to go into a long-term contract that we don’t think is going to be successful. We want to ensure the viability of the company over the long term. That’s part of the evaluation process. I wish we had more details. I believe those will be forthcoming.”
Officials from the U.S. Forest Service’s regional contracting office in Albuquerque did not return calls seeking comment before press time.
Provencio said that anyone could appeal the contract award until about June 9, which could trigger a re-evaluation.
Meanwhile, he said his group would move forward with completing the evaluation and tree marking necessary for Pioneer to thin the first 45,000 acres.
That first installment will include about 2,000 acres off the Control Road near Christopher Creek. The second set of contracts will likely include thousands of acres on the slopes above the Blue Ridge Reservoir. That represents a crucial step in protecting Rim Country’s just-won water supply, since a crown fire on that watershed could cause mudslides and erosion that would start to quickly fill the Blue Ridge Reservoir with mud.
Provencio said his working group will make sure that Pioneer follows the restoration plan, based on a strategy of leaving as many big trees as possible. Those trees can withstand frequent, low-intensity ground fires in a thinned forest, but not the crown fires that arise in a forest choked with saplings and downed wood. However, he said that the guidelines would leave the timber company free to cut trees larger than 16 inches in diameter if it would protect people or improve forest health.
“We have an old-tree retention strategy,” but that formula also includes creating a patchwork of meadows, open areas and shaded forests. “I wouldn’t tie it to a certain size tree — you just can’t. We have old trees in virtually all size classes. One of the things we do is to restore the structure and the pattern of trees.”
The plans call for training the contractor to thin the forest in a way that makes it more diverse and healthy, than doing without a lot of the slow, time-consuming marking of individual trees that typify previous timber contracts.
But the trust in the criteria and the objectivity of the Forest Service appears to have taken a body blow as a result of last week’s announcement concerning the initial contract award.
The Eastern Arizona Counties Association sent a letter asking the Forest Service to reconsider the contract award. “It appears to us that the selected contractor fails to meet even the most basic qualifications. It appears to lack a viable business model, to lack adequate payments to the U.S. Forest Service, to lack funding for ongoing ecological monitoring and to lack a pathway to the social license developed by the communities and stakeholders because it never contributed to the development of the Northern Arizona restoration consensus and lacks any demonstrated buy-in or explicit community support.”
Grand Canyon Trust also questioned the decision.
“4FRI’s success will depend on the contractor being incredibly responsive to and an integral part of the collaborative process. It will require an industry partner that ensures that exactly the right kind of work is done with a very high level of trust from stakeholders that this work is supporting restoration — and that the proverbial industry tail is not wagging the dog. For these and other reasons, we were shocked and — to be honest — extremely disappointed that the Forest Service did not choose Arizona Forest Restoration Products (AZFRP).”
The statement noted, “The northern Arizona community knows almost nothing about the rationale for this decision, and knows even less about Pioneer Associates. Some of what we do know is not at all encouraging. Pioneer Associates offered $10 million less than did Arizona Forest Restoration Products in the bidding. It bases its business model on the production of cellulosic biodiesel — a product that has not, to our knowledge, ever been produced in a commercially viable fashion before. It has not enlisted as partners restoration loggers with nearly the longstanding experience as were enlisted by AZFRP. Pioneer Associates has not, to our knowledge, committed to fund any monitoring. It has neither solicited nor received nearly the level of broad cross-section of community support as did AZFRP.”
Navajo County Supervisor David Tenney also protested the selection. “I cannot state strongly enough that northern Arizona needs the work entailed in this contract to succeed. As evidenced by the Rodeo-Chediski and Wallow fires, the future of our forests and communities depend on 4FRI success.”
Greenlee County Board of Supervisors Chairman Richard Lunt also protested the selection.
“We have worked with many other stakeholders for years within 4FRI to address the need for and build the relationships necessary to accomplish landscape-scale forest restoration. We expected to see the contract awarded to a local company — Arizona Forest Restoration Products (AZFRP) — that has more than demonstrated its capabilities to implement restoration — operationally, financially, and politically.”
Supervisor Martin concluded that she can only now hope that she’s wrong about the consequences of picking Pioneer. “I desperately hope I am wrong - Gila County and what remains of our sad, sickly, highly fire-vulnerable Public Lands Forests absolutely needs 4FRI to be successful. I believed, and still do, that the Arizona business-based AZFRP proposal offered the strongest possible model for getting this work done in an economically, socially, and ecologically responsible fashion.
“I am shocked, to tell you the truth, that the Forest Service selected an out-of-state, relatively unknown bidder (who is proposing to pay an estimated $6 million for the contract) over AZFRP (who was proposing to pay an estimated $15 million).