Hoping to get a stalled forest restoration project moving, the Forest Service has issued “task orders” to cut 8,600 acres of ponderosa pine forest.
The thinning projects intended to restore forest health as part of the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) will include the 1,000-acre Mercer project close to Highway 260 at the base of the Mogollon Rim. That sale will help create a buffer zone to protect Christopher Creek from wildfires.
The rest of the recently added thinning areas are scattered across Northern Arizona, with the largest projects in the Kaibab Forest near Williams and the Coconino Forest near Flagstaff.
In addition, Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin has convinced executives from Good Earth Power AZ LLC to meet with the public and local officials in Rim Country on Wednesday at the Payson Public Library starting at 9:30 a.m. Good Earth recently took over the 4FRI contract to thin 300,000 acres in 10 years from Pioneer Forest Products.
The revolutionary plan would reduce wildfire risk and restore forest health by turning thickets of small trees into fuel for power plants, jet and diesel fuel and products like particle board and finger-jointed furniture. As a result, backers hope the contractor can ultimately thin millions of acres at no cost to the taxpayers, creating jobs for hard-pressed rural counties in the process.
Issuance of the task orders represents welcome progress for a once-gleaming program tarnished by a year-long delay when the first contractor — Pioneer — failed to line up financing to build a mill to handle the massive harvest of small trees.
Thinning projects that create fire protection buffer zones cost about $1,000 per acre and must be repeated every five to 10 years as brush and small trees grow back. 4FRI backers hope the creation of energy and wood products from the brush and small trees will allow a timber company to turn a profit on thinning millions of acres.
Supervisor Martin and other original backers of the concept expressed doubts about the ability of Pioneer to carry out the unprecedented thinning effort. They generally preferred the other original bidder, which planned to generate electricity and make a high-tech type of plywood from the mountains of small trees and brush.
Martin and others didn’t like Pioneer’s business plan or the involvement of Marlin Johnson, a former U.S. Forest Service official who had for many years clashed with environmental groups about how many big trees loggers should cut and other issues.
Several weeks ago, the Forest Service announced that it had approved Pioneer’s request to sell the contract to Good Earth, a company with little domestic experience that has done logging and power generation projects in Africa. Good Earth has promised to partner with a veteran forest management and timber company to carry out the 4FRI project, which envisions thinning at least 30,000 acres annually. However, the company has not yet released the name of the proposed partner.
So far, the company has embraced Pioneer’s plan — which includes a Winslow mill to make finger-jointed furniture and a plan involving a company named Concord Blue, which wants to turn the wood waste into jet fuel.
A search of corporation records suggests that Concord Blue may actually be a partially or wholly-owned subsidiary of Good Earth, which is incorporated in Oman and has mostly done business in Africa. If Concord Blue is simply a subsidiary of Good Earth, it would explain how the international company got connected to the 4FRI project.
Concord Blue insists it can turn tree slash into jet fuel economically, although none of the other companies that have experimented with the process on a small scale came anywhere close to producing fuel at a competitive price.
Martin and others were skeptical of Concord Blue’s plan when it was presented several months ago to the “stakeholders” group of local officials, environmentalists and foresters who developed the 4FRI approach.
In addition, Good Earth has also hired Johnson, who served as a lightning rod for criticism from environmental groups when he was with Pioneer. What to do about the remaining old-growth trees in the forest remains one of the biggest disagreements between the stakeholders group that developed the concept and the Forest Service, which is now implementing that plan.
The stakeholders supported a ban on cutting trees larger than 16 inches in diameter, with only a few exceptions. The Forest Service says that although it wants to preserve most of the remaining old-growth trees, it has refused to accept an easily enforced diameter cap on the trees cut through 4FRI. Instead, the Forest Service wants to leave the contractor free to cut larger trees when it helps the forest — like keeping trees from encroaching on a meadow.
The Center for Biological Diversity has filed a comprehensive Freedom of Information Act request for all the documents relating to the Forest Service’s decision to shift the contract over to Good Earth. The Center for Biological Diversity has won repeated lawsuits against the Forest Service for violating various laws and regulations in approving timber sales. However, the Center became a key player in the development of the 4FRI approach, based on the so-called “large tree retention strategy.” But the selection of Pioneer, the shift to Good Earth and the refusal to accept a diameter cap on the trees cut has frayed the once solid consensus behind 4FRI.
However, Martin now says she wants to give Good Earth a chance to show its plan can work. She said the company has much more financing and a more business-like attitude than Pioneer.
She said the key issue lies in getting the company to start cutting projects that have already cleared the environmental review process as soon as possible. That would include the projects included in last week’s task order — all timber sales that have already undergone study and review.
She agreed Good Earth presented a “financial puzzle,” but that forest communities can’t afford to wait any longer.
“If they’re a puzzle, they’re a well-financed puzzle. If we can get past upcoming NEPA (National Environmental Policy Act) issues and not invite a lawsuit standstill on acres beyond the existing ‘self stock’ (of already approved projects), then we can get 300,000 acres treated and live to fight another day,” Martin said. “Local folks will get some money, some infrastructure will get put in place ... life will be grand.”
The initial 300,000-acre contract represents just the first installment of a series of contracts that could ultimately affect some 6 million acres.
“We’re still in a ‘time will tell’ boat and I think we need to give them the benefit of the doubt for now,” Martin said.
The release of five change orders last week supports Forest Service assertions that it plans to move forward quickly, now that it has a new contractor in place.
Prior to issuance of that 8,600-acres worth of projects, the Forest Service had approved 4FRI thinning projects totaling about 15,000 acres.
Pioneer thinned about 600 acres in the 18 months it had the contract before selling it to Good Earth.