Praying For The Forest Service, Common Sense

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What’s that line in the Garth Brooks’ song?

Oh yeah: “Sometimes I thank God for unanswered prayers.”

Well, we’ve been praying mighty hard that we were wrong about the Forest Service’s strange decision to award the most important timber contract in a generation to Pioneer Forest Products.

“Dear Lord,” we said with the survival of every community in Rim Country on the line, “please let Pioneer work out. Please let us be wrong.”

Well, the Lord moves in mysterious ways — not as mysterious as the U.S. Forest Service — but pretty darn mysterious.

The Forest Service’s regional contracting office in Albuquerque a year ago stunned people like Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin when it unaccountably awarded the 10-year, 300,000-acre, Four Forest Restoration Initiative thinning contract to Pioneer instead of to Arizona Forest Restoration Products (AZFRP).

Mind you, AZFRP had worked closely with the environmentalists, local officials and foresters who developed the idea of reinventing the timber industry to make money on harvesting the millions of small, stunted fire-prone trees now choking the forest. The key lay in the agreement to leave the remaining old-growth trees alone, since they now comprise just 3 percent of the trees and remain essential to forest health and its adaptations to natural fire cycles.

Heck, not only did AZFRP buy into the agreement to not touch the big trees, it offered more for the contract and promised to actually monitor the results. To top it all off, the AZFRP backers had ample financing and lots of experience in the Oriented Strand Board (OSB) industry, a $2 billion global market.

By contrast, Pioneer had a questionable business plan, no financing, and little current experience in running a lumber mill. What Pioneer did have was the involvement of Marlin Johnson, a longtime Forest Service official who spent years battling the environmentalists trying to stop the Forest Service from continuing to cut the old-growth trees.

Nonetheless, the Forest Service stuck stubbornly to its decision in the face of the growing opposition from the people like Supervisor Martin, who had done so much to make 4FRI possible.

Then a couple of months ago, the Forest Service agreed to amend the contract that called for thinning 15,000 acre this year to instead give Pioneer a full 18 months to thin just 1,000 acres.

Given the intervening deaths of 19 firefighters fighting a wildfire in the impossible conditions decades of Forest Service policy have created — that decision seems tragic and incomprehensible.

But now, it turns out, Pioneer has asked permission to effectively sell the 300,000-acre contract to some other company.

The request could offer the Forest Service a face-saving opportunity to undo its formidable blunder in awarding the contract to Pioneer in the first place — although AZFRP has long since disbanded.

In truth, we’re now praying that a major timber company has seen the enormous potential of the 4FRI approach. All the loggers must do is leave the remaining big trees standing and they’ll find everyone on the same side singing “Kumbayah.” The project could lead to the reinvention of the timber industry all across the West, with harvests finally applied to restoring, rather than ruining the forest. And if the mysterious white knight is instead a small company willing to lead the way, we hope they have both a realistic business plan and a keen appreciation of the need to protect that precious consensus that promises an end decades of deadlock.

Of course, if past is prelude — the Forest Service will find some way to delay, confuse and alienate the key players, as the fuel loads build up one deadly fire season after another.

So the best we can do now is pray it ain’t so.

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