The mystery land manager tapped to manage one of the largest, most complex logging operations in history turns out to be mostly a land broker that bundles timber sales.
Good Earth Power last week announced it will contract with The Campbell Group to manage the first 300,000 acres of a thinning and forest restoration contract that could one day encompass some 2.6 million acres.
The Campbell Group manages 3 million acres as a land and timber broker, but generally hasn’t actually operated the timber-cutting crews that will actually implement an unprecedented plan to use the timber industry to restore dense, healthy, fire-prone forests to healthy conditions not seen for a century.
Good Earth Power several months ago bought the forest restoration contract from Pioneer Forest Products, after a year of delay and controversy. Some advocates for the forest-thinning approach to restoration expressed reservations about Good Earth’s lack of timber-cutting experience. Good Earth has done green energy and logging projects in Africa and elsewhere and gets its financing from China, the Gulf and other regions.
Good Earth sought to allay those concerns about a lack of experience managing major logging operations in the United States by promising to bring in an experienced U.S. timber management firm.
Good Earth Power CEO Jason Rosamond released the identity of the contractor at a Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) stakeholders meeting. “We are delighted to have The Campbell Group on board with their impressive track record in forestry management,” said Rosamond. “We look forward to leveraging their extensive expertise and in-depth industry knowledge to successfully fulfill all task orders and to meet the objectives of the 4FRI.”
Campbell Group President John Gilleland said, “We are pleased to partner with Good Earth Power, the U.S. Forest Service and 4FRI stakeholders to restore these forests and to execute the task orders that have been issued by the Forest Service.”
Founded in 1981, The Campbell Group’s 300 employees manage 3.2 million acres of timberland in Australia and the U.S. worth a total of some $6.1 billion.
Rim Country has an enormous stake in the success of the 4FRI approach, which dramatically reduces fire danger and increases forest health on millions of acres at no cost to the taxpayers. It’s almost the only large-scale approach to reducing the steadily rising number of megafires like the Rodeo-Chediski Fire, which threaten dramatic, long-term changes in the forest and threaten the very survival of forest communities like Payson.
In addition, a thinning project to shelter Christopher Creek and Tonto Village from wildfires is included in an early batch of projects. Payson officials also hope the Forest Service will give priority to projects on the watershed of the Blue Ridge Reservoir, to protect the town’s water supply.
Groups that have pushed the Forest Service to adopt the forest restoration approach to logging reacted to the announcement with wary optimism.
Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin said that both Good Earth and The Campbell Group have far more resources and a far more businesslike approach than Pioneer Forest Products, which held the contract for a year but thinned only a few hundred acres and never lined up financing for a promised Winslow mill that could turn small trees into finger-jointed furniture.
Martin said she had hoped that the subcontractor would have more experience with actually running logging and thinning operations, considering the scale and complexity of the project.
The Forest Service hopes to develop flexible prescriptions that will create a diverse, healthy forest by dramatically reducing tree densities while leaving the remaining big, fire-resistant trees. That means giving the logging crews much more autonomy, instead of having Forest Service supervisors mark every tree for cutting.
Martin said she believes that Good Earth hopes to test the viability of an experimental technology for turning things like tree slash into diesel or jet fuel. Concord Blue has tested the technology on a small scale and proven it works, although at present it doesn’t compare in price to producing fuel from oil or natural gas.
Good Earth has apparently bought a controlling interest in Concord Blue to obtain rights to the technology. The huge volume of wood and branches from the 4FRI contract would provide the opportunity to test the technology on a massive scale, especially if the U.S. government provides green energy subsidies.
Martin said that the Forest Service must bring the whole contract process back to the original concept. She said Good Earth and The Campbell Group have major resources, but the Forest Service must make sure the prescription makes sense. She said she hopes that the environmental assessment now under way for the full 300,000-acre contract should return to the “large tree retention strategy” developed by the original stakeholders group.
In addition, the contract should include a review of the science behind the prescription by outside groups and money to monitor the results of the thinning projects, to make sure they’re working out the way they’re intended.
Todd Schulke, with the Centers for Biological Diversity, expressed continuing skepticism about the involvement of The Campbell Group. “It’s hard to know what to make of this announcement due to the deep level of secrecy surrounding the decision.
“We don’t really know much about Campbell so it’s hard to have much to say about them. It seems that their expertise is geared more toward the real estate side of timber holdings based on information off the Web,” he said.
The Forest Service has gotten the process moving after a year’s delay by adding about 8,000 acres worth of thinning projects ready to go to the 15,000 acres approved for Pioneer a year ago. However, those projects all involve projects previously approved for logging or thinning contracts, which therefore didn’t require the completion of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis under way for the full, 300,000 acres — perhaps the largest single environmental analysis for a timber contract ever done.
The Forest Service hopes to reduce tree densities from about 1,000 trees per acre to more like 30 to 60 trees per acre across a huge expanse of forest. That would return the forest to conditions that prevailed before Europeans arrived 200 years ago. Presumably, that would also make it possible to return fire to the system. In a thinned forest, low-intensity ground fires could clear out the brush and small trees every five or 10 years and create a much more diverse and healthy forest. But in an overcrowded forest with 1,000 trees per acre, a fire burns so hot that it kills every single tree, chars the soil and makes it less able to absorb water — causing disastrous subsequent floods and mudslides.
Much of the debate over the NEPA analysis on which detailed guidelines for the thinning project will be based revolves around the so-called “large tree retention strategy.”
The agreement to leave standing almost all remaining trees larger than 16 inches in diameter provided the glue that held together the 4FRI stakeholders group that included timber critics like the Centers for Biological Diversity and logging advocates like Martin.
However, when the Forest Service adopted the thinning approach advocated by the 4FRI group, it didn’t also accept the 16-inch diameter cap on cutting large trees. Forest Service wildlife and timber experts argued that although they want to return to a forest dominated by large trees, that may require cutting some of the remaining large trees. For instance, some areas may have relatively dense patches of large trees or taking large trees may preserve meadows or springs or other areas critical to wildlife.
Some of the original 4FRI advocates have expressed skepticism about that approach, especially given the involvement of former Forest Service regional forester Marlin Johnson, first with Pioneer and now with Good Earth. While with the Forest Service, he battled environmental groups for years over how many large trees to cut.
The Centers for Biological Diversity has filed a broad Freedom of Information request for records on the 4FRI contract and the awarding of the contract to Pioneer and then the transfer to Good Earth.
But much of the discussion at the moment focuses on the guidelines in the 4FRI contract that will govern cutting the large trees which now comprise only about 3 percent of the trees in the ponderosa pine forests of Northern Arizona.
Schulke said “There was talk at the last stakeholders meeting about large trees. Jason from Good Earth said they weren’t going to cut any large trees at all. When I asked him about it during the Q&A he said they would do what the Forest Service told them and that it was up to the stakeholders to convince the Forest Service it was bad idea. He added that they would consider starting with the small trees and coming back to the large ones in question because they didn’t really have any interest or need for them.”
Martin said that if Good Earth stresses turning slash into fuel, they won’t need the large trees — which seemed reassuring.
However, Schulke said, “I have to say I’m still very skeptical. Things just aren’t adding up” when analyzing Good Earth’s plans. The company has said it could use the small trees and slash to make pellets for wood-burning stoves and fireplaces, fuel and furniture.
“Any one of these can seem pretty unlikely,” said Schulke, “particularly with the claims of quick profitability. But add them all up and the chances of success start to feel pretty elusive. They are also changing the story slowly and acting as if they aren’t. One example is they claimed they were going to make pellets during the interim before the biofuels plants are built and ship them to Europe via Georgia. Now they are saying China via the West Coast and acted surprised someone would suggest they had said anything about Europe.
“Finally, none of these ideas are working anywhere else in the West, so why would we believe they have the magic to make them work here? But if they do pull off these dubious ideas they will turn the forest economics world on its head.”