Skepticism just short of hostility pervaded the atmosphere at the Payson Public Library’s meeting room Wednesday, Oct. 2, as the head of the company that just landed the biggest forest thinning contract in history faced a barrage of questions.
Good Earth Power, an Oman-based corporation, recently bought a 10-year contract to thin 100,000 acres from Pioneer Forest Products, with the approval of the U.S. Forest Service as part of the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) project. The project will eventually thin 2 million acres in the Tonto, Apache-Sitgreaves, Kaibab and Coconino national forests. Advocates say the project represents the best hope of reducing fire danger in Rim Country before disaster strikes.
Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin invited the representatives of Good Earth Power to Payson to talk to residents and representatives of government and business about the company and its plans. Attending the meeting for the company were Jason Rosamond, chief executive officer; Maya Minkova, community development director; Peter D. McNulty, water resources director; and Marlin Johnson, a former U.S. Forest Service forester, who also worked for Pioneer during the year it held the contract.
Also attending was Pascal Berlioux, executive director for the Eastern Arizona Counties Organization, and one of the authors of the 4FRI project. Berlioux was one of two original bidders for the contract and had the backing of Martin and others, but the Forest Service picked Pioneer.
Rosamond said Good Earth’s focus is on power production, agriculture, transportation and housing, and working in support of women and children.
“Half of our proceeds from a project are returned to the community where they are generated to go toward education, health care and other projects at the community’s direction,” he said.
He said the company is working to help resolve the energy crisis in Africa with a patented technology to extract pure hydrogen from organic waste, which could include brush and branches from thinning projects.
He said “thermolysis-gasification” can use organic wastes to produce energy without incineration.
He said the process creates few emissions. The process creates a synthetic gas to generate electricity, ethanol, hydrogen, ammonia and fertilizer, according to the company’s Web site. Rosamond focused on the energy production that will result from the treatment contract. He did not discuss any other uses for the small ponderosa pines harvested, although the Forest Service-approved plan also involves manufacturing furniture.
Currently, the company is meeting with mill owners on both the east and west sides of the vast, 4FRI area to see which facilities can be converted quickly to begin the process. A mill in Snowflake that already burns wood to generate electricity would come into the process first, Rosamond said.
“If we were to build a mill to meet our needs it would take 24 months and nobody wants to wait two more years for the project to start,” he said.
The initial efforts will be a “test” of the technology and if it “takes” most of the labor will be from the local workforce. However, as the project grows to a harvest of 30,000 acres or more annually, as much of 10 percent of management could come from within the company.
The initial effort would focus on the 300,000 acres promised in the first contract, mostly in the Kaibab and Coconino forests. The initial set of contracts also includes 1,000 acres near Christopher Creek intended to create a buffer zone to protect the community from fires. Payson officials hope the Forest Service will also include thinning projects on the watershed that drains into the Blue Ridge Reservoir. A crown fire on that watershed, of which Payson’s future water supply depends, could rapidly fill up the reservoir with mud during subsequent storms. Despite the two-year delay in getting started, the company will stick to the original schedule, said Rosamond.
The second effort will be treating 500,000 on the east side of the 4FRI area, probably in 2017-2018, in one or multiple sites
The company will treat an average of 30,000 acres annually, according to Berlioux, executive director for the Eastern Arizona Counties Organization, amounting to 600,000 to 700,000 tons of logs and 300,000 tons of waste.
The project could generate up to 500 to 600 jobs in logging, trucking and processing.
Initially, Good Earth will focus on thousands of acres previously approved by the Forest Service.
Meanwhile, the Forest Service is working on a massive environmental impact statement involving nearly 2 million acres, including much of Rim Country. Backers hope to complete an overall assessment, which will then allow the contractor to move quickly on projects without time-consuming delays. However, that approach relies on coming up with agreed-upon guidelines to produce a healthy forest that will allow the contractor flexibility to cut different sized trees to achieve certain overall goals. Forest managers want a diverse forest with meadows and grass. The plan calls for some thicker areas to benefit animals like the Mexican spotted owl. But overall, the plan calls for a drastic reduction in tree densities — from maybe 1,000 trees to acre to more like 50 trees per acre.
The 4FRI contract will generally not include the harvest of bark beetle kill and fire-killed trees, covered by separate, salvage contracts awarded after fires and outbreaks. The 4FRI approach also won’t apply to brushy chaparral — like most of the area that burned in the lethal Yarnell Fire.
Rosamond said in addition to meeting with mill owners, Good Earth is meeting with municipal, county and state officials regarding getting the necessary permits (ADEQ, zoning, etc.) for the work proposed. Rosamond said the company wants to understand the scope and timing of the proposed thinning projects.
By the end of the session, Rosamond seemed to have won over at least some of the skeptics.
Martin, who last week said, “We’re still in a ‘time will tell’ boat and I think we need to give them the benefit of the doubt for now” closed the meeting saying she was feeling good about what she had heard.