We’Re Lashed To The Great White Whale

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No doubt about it: We’re strapped to the scarred and terrible back of the Great White Whale. Now and then, when the monster sounds, Ahab — tangled in harpoon line — beckons to us.

Leastwise, that’s how it felt listening to the Web-cast press conference during which the Forest Service revealed the identity of our savior: The company that has bought out the largest forest-thinning project in history.

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Forest Service photo

Make no mistake, Rim Country’s future depends on the success of the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI), which presumes that timber companies can turn a profit on thinning millions of acres of tree thickets.

A wildly unlikely coalition of environmental groups, conservative local officials like Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin and creative representatives of the timber industry developed the approach. Sometimes, the Forest Service seems determined to drown it.

4FRI rests on the premise that the taxpayers can’t afford to spend $1,000 an acre clearing millions of acres of tree thickets. Nor can we just let it burn. That means only a reinvented timber industry can reduce tree densities from 1,000 per acre to something approaching the 50 trees per acre that existed before we arrived and mucked up an ancient and once-sustainable ecosystem.

More than a year ago, the Forest Service inexplicably awarded perhaps the most important contract in its history to Pioneer Forest Products, a company with no assets, no financing and a dubious business plan. The only visible asset on the company’s ledger was the insider connections offered by former Forest Service Forester Marlin Johnson, who spent decades trying to harvest the last big trees over the objection of lawsuit-wielding environmental groups.

Experts like Supervisor Martin expressed grave concern about Pioneer’s plan. Alas, those qualms proved well founded. After more then a year of dithering, Pioneer sought approval to sell the contract to another company. Apparently, the company didn’t realize that banks won’t loan hundreds of millions of dollars without some collateral beyond the possession of a Forest Service contract. Apparently, the Forest Service never bothered to check on the company’s financing or assets.

So who came riding to the rescue? Get this: It’s an Oman-based company with lots of experience in biofuel projects in, well Africa. Turns out, Good Earth has almost no experience at all in the U.S. — especially the ecologically complicated ponderosa forests. Reportedly the company is negotiating with an experienced forest management company — although the details remain maddeningly confidential.

So, what shall we make of the latest unexpected twist in this high-stakes melodrama?

Martin says she’s decided to “put on her Polly Anna hat” — or at least give the apparently well-capitalized Good Earth the benefit of the doubt. We’ll see. They talk a good game — but we’ve squandered two years now mucking about with the wrong company. Wildfires this season killed 19 firefighters in thick brush on the outskirts of Yarnell. Who knows what next year’s holocaust will bring, as the Forest Service fiddles.

But, then, we’re bound to the back of the beast.

We can only pray that Good Earth will prove a sound choice — as we prayed that Pioneer would work out.

The Great White Whale has come to the surface in a fury of water and a great spout of vapor.

Don’t look at Ahab. Ignore his haunted gesture.

Take a breath — a deep, deep breath — and hope for the best.

We’re lashed to the Forest Service — and she sounds, she sounds.

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