We have this terrible, sinking feeling that the Forest Service has done it again. Last week the Forest Service somehow managed to turn the most hopeful and visionary consensus on how we can save our forests and our communities into yet another muddled controversy.
We have waited eagerly for two years now for the Forest Service to award contracts that will use timber companies to not only restore forest health — but protect our fire-threatened communities through the 4-Forests Restoration Initiative (4-FRI).
Those contracts would guarantee wood product companies a virtually unlimited supply of wood, providing they could use the small trees and brush now choking millions of acres in each of the four national forests in north and central Arizona.
Years of painstaking negotiations between local officials, foresters, timber interests and conservationists had laid the groundwork. The key lay in the emerging consensus that a century of grazing, logging and fire suppression had unhinged a once fire-resistant forest. Instead of an open, grassy forest dominated by centuries-old ponderosas adapted to low intensity ground fires every five to 10 years, we wound up with thickets and crown fires. Instead of 50 trees per acre, we now have between 500 and 1,500.
The loggers and environmentalists eager to use the timber industry to heal the forest agreed — the timber companies could thin millions of acres at no cost to taxpayers by concentrating on the small trees. All the Forest Service need do was to guarantee a steady supply of wood by sticking to the deal.
Such an agreement offers the only hope of thinning millions of acres without bankrupting the treasury. And only moving quickly to get those acres thinned will save places like Payson, Pine, Strawberry and Star Valley from eventually burning down in a crown fire holocaust.
So after all that preparation, study, waiting and hope — the Forest Service announced its choice: Pioneer Forest Products — an out-of-state wood products company. The company plans to partner with Marlin Johnson, formerly the chief Forest Service logging industry supervisor in the Southwest.
The choice proved instantly controversial, mostly because Johnson spent years battling the very environmental groups whose agreement made the 4-FRI approach so promising. Johnson and groups like the Centers for Biological Diversity fought one another to a deadlock, largely over whether the Forest Service should let the timber companies continue to cut a large share of the remaining old-growth trees.
Even conservative, pro-industry experts like Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin have expressed concern about the choice, although they have focused on other elements of the contract — like the assumption that Pioneer can make a go of using a lot of the brush and small trees in a relatively untested process for making diesel fuel from wood products.
Now, we hope we’re wrong. We hope that the Centers for Biological Diversity is overreacting when they condemned as “cronyism” the inclusion of Johnson as a partner with a company he used to regulate. Certainly, Johnson worked a long time trying to find a way to generate jobs and revenue from public forests on behalf of the taxpayers. We hope that his expertise will ensure a smooth and efficient partnership, which will save all of the communities we love from disaster.
But we have to admit, we’re unnerved by the immediate outbreak of controversy and the Forest Service’s stubborn refusal to accept the advice of local officials, conservationists and other stakeholders. Other bidders seemed to offer a much closer working relationship with those groups at a seemingly lower cost to the taxpayers.
We hope it blows over.
We hope the Forest Service and Pioneer find a way to quickly reassure the critics, who have worked so hard and so long to achieve the agreement that this choice of contractors threatens to unravel.
But we’d certainly feel better if this didn’t feel so familiar — and if we could put out of our minds the unnerving recollection that it was the Forest Service’s cozy and short-sighted relationship with industry that got us into this mess in the first place.