Vexing questions continue to swirl around the fate of the largest forest restoration project in history, but news of the reopening of a two shuttered power plants in Snowflake have boosted the hopes of advocates.
Supporters of forest restoration hailed the announcement this week that a company controlled by Arizona State Sen. Bob Worsley will reopen the 24-megawatt Snowflake Power Plant, which will provide a market for small trees and restore about 100 jobs to the hard-pressed rural White Mountains community.
Worsley said he would also reopen an adjacent 80-megawatt coal-fired plant, after converting it to natural gas or installing pollution control equipment.
However, an adjacent, shuttered recycled paper mill will be dismantled by its Canadian owners.
The opening of the 24-megawatt power plant will provide a local market for the millions of tons of small-diameter trees that must be harvested to restore Northern Arizona’s sapling-choked forests.
“This is very good news,” said Cathie Schmidlin, a Forest Service spokesperson.
spokesperson. “There will be material going to this plant” from the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI).
Worsley said he has 10-year agreements with Arizona Public Service and the Salt River Project to buy power generated by burning wood in the Snowflake plant. Not only will the harvest of those pine thickets provide energy, but the thinning will remove enough trees to increase runoff — restoring streams and ultimately putting more water in SRP’s reservoirs along the Salt and Verde rivers.
Worsley said local investors put up $12 million to restart the two energy-producing plants and buy 7,000 acres nearby to serve as a landfill for the ash produced. The move should immediately restore 35 jobs in the wood-burning power plant and create another 65 jobs for crews to thin the surrounding forest.
Previously, the struggling White Mountain Stewardship Project provided wood to the operation. That project relied on a Forest Service subsidy of about $800 per acre and federal budget constraints sharply limited the amount of forest thinned. However, buffer zones created by that thinning project essentially saved Alpine and Springerville from the Wallow Fire. The thinned areas forced a racing crown fire to drop to the ground, where fire crews stopped it.
However, reopening at least one of the Snowflake facilities still doesn’t solve the problems facing the massive 4FRI project, tangled in a dispute about whether the Forest Service picked the wrong contractor.
The U.S. Forest Service continues to contemplate a request to transfer the contract to thin 300,000 acres from Pioneer Forest Products to a still-unnamed other company. Ultimately, the project will encompass some 2 million acres on the Tonto, Coconino, Kaibab and Apache-Sitgreaves Forests.
Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin said a long delay on a contract transfer that winds up with another flawed business plan puts the future of the county at risk.
She noted that Northern Gila County generates 65 to 75 percent of the economic activity in the county, but remains “100 percent vulnerable to wildfire. We’re talking about people’s homes, which are their nest eggs. Not only will it bankrupt the county were it to burn, but it will bankrupt a whole lot of people at the same time. This is not some esoteric argument — the value of our homes is at stake. Even if your house doesn’t burn — and the forest burns around it — you’ve lost major assessed value.”
Critics initially greeted the news of a contract transfer with optimism, but for some that hope waned as details emerged.
Martin played a key role in developing the 4FRI consensus. She said she feared the new contractor will stick with Pioneer’s controversial plan based on using small trees and brush to make finger-jointed furniture and either diesel or jet fuel. She cited a recent presentation to the 4FRI stakeholders by one of Pioneer’s partners — a European firm called Concord Blue. The company claims it can make $2-a-gallon jet fuel from wood chips, which Martin characterized as “horsefeathers.”
Speaking for the Forest Service’s regional contracting office, Schmidlin said federal contracting rules require the Forest Service to negotiate for the contract transfer privately and preclude release of Pioneer’s business plan — or the identity of the company Pioneer wants to transfer the contract to.
“This is business and these are contracts,” she said. “What we do is guided by federal acquisition regulations and I don’t believe that regulation allows for public comments. We must make the decision in terms of what is in the best interests of the government. I recognize there’s a lot of interest in this and there are a lot of people interested in seeing this moving forward so we can see these forests thinned.”
She said she didn’t know how long it would take the Forest Service to decide whether to transfer the contract, but ruled out consulting with the outside groups that helped develop the 4FRI approach before making the decision.
But Supervisor Martin said the Forest Service should carefully review the business plan of the proposed new contractor, using “an independent, third-party, business/investment best practice, due diligence on the contract transfer, especially in view of what was learned at the July 24 stakeholder meeting. We cannot afford another blind gamble on the Pioneer business plan, losing an additional year and another 15,000 acres in the race — the stakes are so high.”
The Center for Biological Diversity, which also helped develop the 4FRI approach, has filed a request for an inspector general’s investigation of the award of the contract to Pioneer, which offered to pay $9 million less than the competing company. The Center asserted Pioneer won the contract as a result of “cronyism” because one of the backers was retired Forest Service official Marlin Johnson.
The 4FRI approach as originally developed would rely on logging to restore a healthy, old-growth forest. Some early participants like Supervisor Martin favored award of the contract to Arizona Forest Restoration Products (AZFRP), which agreed to pay more for the contract, not touch most of the old-growth trees and provide $500,000 annually to monitor whether the thinning projects were having the desired effect on wildlife and forest health.
The Forest Service hasn’t released the details of its decision-making process or Pioneer’s proposed business plan, but a year ago said it had confidence Pioneer would fulfill the contract terms and had a better business model than AZFRP.
Up to that point, AZFRP had worked closely with the group of loggers, environmentalists and local officials who came up with an agreement to put a reinvented timber industry to work thinning millions of acres. The key to the deal that promised to end decades of standoff lay in the agreement to leave standing almost all of the remaining old-growth trees larger than 16 inches in diameter. AZFRP wanted to use the small diameter trees to make a high-tech form of “oriented strand board” wood products.
Critics questioned whether Pioneer had the financing to pull off its plan to make finger-jointed furniture and diesel fuel. Several months ago, Pioneer sought and received a modification of its contract so that it could thin just 1,000 acres in the next 18 months instead of 15,000 this year and 30,000 next. Pioneer told the Forest Service it needed the extension so it could line up financing for a proposed $230 million mill in Winslow. Then last week Pioneer asked for permission to transfer the contact to another company.
The Forest Service also roiled 4FRI supporters by refusing to accept the “large tree retention strategy” the 4FRI group had unanimously accepted. The plan would sharply limit cutting trees larger than 16 inches in diameter. Forest Service officials have said they need more flexibility when it comes to cutting big trees in some areas to accomplish goals like providing more open meadows, restoring streams and providing a diverse, patchy forest. Forest Service officials say that in some places big, old-growth trees form thickets of their own — or encroach on meadows and other key components of a healthy forest.
On the other hand, critics contend that the big trees that once dominated now account for only 3 percent of the trees in the forest. They feared that Pioneer would focus on the big trees that would produce the most revenue, leaving behind the small trees that have created the problem. The innovative 4FRI approach relies on having the Forest Service provide the contract with guidelines on the thinning treatments, but then letting the contractor do most of the marking of the trees as they go along. Current practice requires contractors to mark most of the trees under Forest Service supervision before they start cutting. The 4FRI approach therefore relies on far more trust in the contractor, which is why the limits on cutting big trees remain key to winning over the diverse supporters.