The Grand Canyon Trust has been a longstanding and strong supporter of landscape-scale forest restoration within northern Arizona. We have also been a strong supporter and founding member of the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) — an effort that has unprecedented potential to address the environmental needs of northern Arizona’s forests in a socially responsible and economically viable fashion.
We have long awaited the choice by the Forest Service of a preferred contractor for implementing the 4FRI’s first, 10-year contract. From the outset of the 4FRI process, we have supported the bidding process as an open and competitive one, recognizing the importance of finding the best contractor to meet 4FRI’s needs over the coming years.
The decision made by the Forest Service to award 4FRI’s first contract to Pioneer Associates was and is an extremely consequential one. It is so because 4FRI’s success will, in large part, depend on the ability of the chosen contractor to implement restoration treatments in a high quality, cost-effective manner. This will require substantial expertise and care in the woods, as well as a strong business model for processing and adding value to the small diameter trees generated as restoration by-products. 4FRI’s success will also 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) as the contractor responsible for implementing 4FRI treatments over the next decade. We have worked collaboratively with AZFRP for nearly seven years and have long supported their bid to receive the recently awarded contract. We supported AZFRP for a number of reasons.
First and foremost, AZFRP has a dependable plan for and business model centered around harvesting and utilizing small diameter trees at appropriate scales. It has assembled a best-in-class array of business partners, investors, and restoration loggers with proven expertise to accomplish the work with the highest degree of professionalism. It has a proven product line and market demand. It has committed to provide $500,000 per year to monitoring to ensure that ecological needs drive treatments — funding that is nearly impossible to come by and that the Forest Service will almost certainly never provide. It has committed to pay $15 million over 10 years for the privilege of harvesting wood and biomass across 4FRI’s first project area.
As important as its business model and financial commitments, AZFRP has worked tirelessly within the collaborative process for the last six years to build and support a social license for landscape-scale restoration, establishing a deep level of trust with a wide cross-section of the community — ranging from key environmental NGO stakeholders to science providers to community leaders across the state. AZFRP has gone where no industry proponent has in creatively bolstering collaboration, and improving relationships that have long been antagonistic and unproductive within the forest restoration community. The importance of such an important bridge builder disappearing from the process should not be underestimated.
AZFRP did not receive the 4FRI contract. Pioneer Associates did. We, and the rest of the northern Arizona community, know almost nothing about the rationale for this decision, and know 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 process — a sum that would significantly address the critical shortfall in funding currently faced by 4FRI. 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.
We, at the Grand Canyon Trust, find the recent contracting decision made by the Forest Service extremely problematic and worrisome. Landscape-scale restoration cannot proceed in northern Arizona without industry partners offsetting the otherwise prohibitive cost of treatments. At the same time, landscape-scale restoration will not proceed if our industry partners are unable to effectively and efficiently thin and utilize small diameter trees — all the while honoring and building upon the collaborative potential and social license that has been 4FRI’s bedrock since the outset.
The future of northern Arizona’s forests and its forest-dependent communities depends on this recent contract award decision being the right one. We must, as a broader community invested in the success 4FRI, have the highest level of knowledge of, familiarity with, and confidence in the contract decision made, and the contractor chosen.
We believe that the Forest Service should, for the sake of transparency, release all information regarding the decision-making process and rationale underlying the contract decision. Similarly, we believe that Pioneer Associates should follow the transparency lead modeled by AZFRP and share, in detail, their business model, implementation strategies, and plans for collaboration. Finally, we believe that an independent and transparent review of the bidding and contract award decision-making process is warranted and should be conducted with all due haste.
This decision is one we, as a northern Arizona community, will live with for years to come. The consequences of making a wrong decision will be severe. We remain steadfastly committed to the success of landscape-scale forest restoration in northern Arizona and, in that spirit, offer these thoughts, serious reservations, and requests.