The logging company many hope will protect forested communities from catastrophic wildfires continues to struggle to marshal a massive effort, but hasn’t yet cut much, participants at a conference on Forest Health learned last week.
Steve Horner, who is seeking to fulfill the biggest forest restoration contract in Forest Service history, said Good Earth has permission to cut some 15,000 acres already and expects another 10,000 in task orders shortly. Horner is area manager for Campbell Global, which is managing the contract for Good Earth.
But that’s just the down payment on a contract through the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) that covers 300,000 acres. On the original schedule, Good Earth would have cut 40,000 acres last year and 40,000 this year, but so far the company has cut only a few thousand acres.
However, Horner said, “It’s a really monumental task to build an infrastructure to cover the acres we need to do. Rather than saying, ‘Let’s get out there and start moving a few acres,’ we’re trying to build the infrastructure so we can do 40,000 acres a year in the next two or three years. We’ll need 300 trucks a day. You don’t snap your fingers and have trucks show up. It’s the chicken and the egg thing. What we’re striving for is to build that infrastructure for us to leap off and hit those acres at a level that if we achieve it, is going to snap a lot of people’s necks.”
But that means not only marshaling 80,000 truck-trips annually on forest roads, but financing a network of mills and biofuel operations to handle the huge quantities of wood from small trees growing in thickets four to 20 times the natural densities.
In the short term, Good Earth will rely heavily on selling saw timber, processed through existing mills. That means selling the wood from trees 14 to 18 inches in diameter will generate the profits needed to remove the massive amount of even smaller trees and brush.
“Ultimately, there needs to be a big processing facility to deal with a low value product. A lot of the basic elements are in place — there are some existing logging companies and a lot of trucking resources, also markets that do exist.”
Forest Service 4FRI Assistant Team Leader Dick Fleishman also served on the panel and echoed the unprecedented scale of the 4FRI contract. The Forest Service has prepared some 125,000 worth of existing thinning and timber contracts to get the project started. But it also hopes to complete this fall a massive environmental assessment of the effect of thinning perhaps a million acres — including the 300,000 acres already awarded to Good Earth.
But even that’s just a down payment on some 2.4 million acres in Northern Arizona so overgrown with trees as a result of a century of fire suppression, grazing and logging that they stand in severe danger of wildfires so hot they could permanently destroy the forest and threatened forested communities.
Fleishman noted that instead of 25 to 110 trees per acre, most areas have 400 to 1,000 trees per acre. “When that burns, it burns hot,” said Fleishman. “It’s a monoculture of trees, with layers of pine needles covering the ground — the worst thing you can have in a forest ecosystem.”
The revelation that most of the initial contracts will depend on finding existing mills and the profits from the larger trees touches on one of the most controversial elements of the Forest Service’s effort to implement the 4FRI approach, originally developed by a coalition of loggers, environmentalists, forest researchers and local officials. That stakeholder group broke decades of deadlock and finger-pointing by agreeing to focus on trees smaller than 16 inches in diameter. The group wanted the Forest Service to accept a flat diameter cap, but the Forest Service decided it needed more flexibility — including an ability to take larger trees. While agreeing the 4FRI approach should leave as many large trees as possible, the environmental assessment will consider the impact of taking larger trees both to achieve certain goals like creating more meadows and to help the contractor turn a profit on the contract.
“There hasn’t been any analysis that says were going to cut any old trees,” said Fleishman, having earlier suggested 18 inches would represent the upper size limit of trees cut under the contract. “This is the largest environmental impact statement in the history of the Forest Service, and we should have it out in September” which is nearly a year behind earlier schedules. “The focus is going to be in the middle size tree — and the 15-18 inch diameters are the bulk of that. If we start cutting large, old trees — we’ll be in court so fast” as a result of legal challenges by environmental groups that supported the original concept with a 16-inch diameter cap. “This is a social issue,” he concluded.
Horner said Good Earth ultimately wants to use the millions of tons of biomass from the forest to produce energy — including jet fuel. But it won’t have the technology of the plants to do that for some years. “Their core business is creating energy from waste. But this will take years. The technology is not yet perfected for commercial production levels. So it comes back in the short term to saw lumber — solid wood products like poles and posts, really common things that have established markets. On the biomass side, it means grinding up trees and brush to create products that are really common — mulch, compost” and things like decorative bark for landscaping.
Arizona remains well positioned to feed such wood materials into many regional markets. “We’re optimistic we’re going to break the code. One of the most important things is to add as much value (to the wood products) as close to home as possible. Pine lumber continues to be a very valuable resource, so we’re looking at that as well. How do we make good quality wood out of what would otherwise be low quality.”