The U.S. Forest Service hopes to jump-start stalled forest restoration efforts with a whole new approach to finding contractors to thin 800,000 acres of dangerously overgrown forests.
The Forest Service this week issued its latest “request for proposals” (RFP) for loggers, sawmills, biomass-burning plants and others to sign on for 20-year contracts to clear millions of tons of trees and biomass. The action comes after the Forest Service completely rewrote the rules for contracts to take advantage of the painful lessons of the past decade.
“This is very different from the first time around,” said Cal Joyner, regional forester for the U.S. Forest Service, whose domain covers much of the western U.S.
“This time we’re thinking more wide-open in allowing proponents to tell us what they can do. When it comes to adding resilience to the forest to support endangered species and the human communities nestled in the forest, this is the best proposal we have.”
The RFP represents a key turning point in the forest restoration project. The new approach has drawn strong support from experts who have long been critical of floundering efforts to thin millions of acres through the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI).
“I’m very happy with the RFP,” said Brad Worsley, president of Novo Power, the only biomass-burning, electrical power plant in Arizona, “mainly because they have prioritized biomass.”
The new approach could save the 28-megawatt power plant from shutting down in the next four years, depending on the response of industry.
“The problem with the past contracts was that the contractor never had a realistic answer to the key question: Where does the wood go?” said Pascal Berlioux, head of the Eastern Arizona Counties Organization, who played a key role in writing the new RFP. “Past contractors have offered a ‘La La Land’ proposal. This second RFP has created a condition so we can get an answer to those questions.”
Salt River Project Director of Water Supply Bruce Hallin said, “This has never been done before on several levels. The involvement of the partners, the review process, this is something new.”
The new RFP process includes a review panel of outside experts including SRP — which supplies both water and power to a million customers in the Valley.
In the first phase of 4FRI contracts, the Forest Service picked a single contractor with minimal experience and no infrastructure. In the past seven years, a succession of contractors has thinned 15,000 acres, rather than the hoped for 300,000 acres.
The new approach will open the door to multiple contractors and stress a team approach that can handle the biomass composed of wood slash and small trees. The biomass problem has stymied forest thinning efforts so far and represents more than half the material contractors must remove.
Repeated studies show that thinning millions of acres from perhaps 800 trees per acre to more like 50 trees per acre remains vital to restoring forest health, protecting watersheds and preventing wildfires from consuming forested communities.
The Forest Service hopes the lure of a 20-year contract and the guarantee of millions of tons of wood every year will attract bids from major industry partners able to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in things like small-wood sawmills, biofuel burning power plants and mills to produce high-tech, oriented strand board wood products. That didn’t work on the first set of 10-year contracts, but this time the Forest Service has changed many elements of the contracting process.
• Breaking the roughly 800,000 acres into smaller units, so contractors can bid on a limited area. That could prove a boon to the cluster of wood processing operations in the White Mountains, including Novo Power and the Reidhead sawmills.
• Offering an eight-year initial contract, with three, four-year extensions if the contractor meets production targets.
• Leaving the door open to a subsidy in portions of the project area if that’s what it takes to get rid of the biomass — which has frustrated previous contractors.
• Establishing of a review panel with representatives from the state and local government, industry and partners like SRP to rate proposals and review performance along the way.
• Granting a 20-year contract under new congressional authority, which is twice the previous maximum. This will give industry time to recover its sizable initial investment.
• Completing environmental review of nearly 2 million acres, which means the Forest Service can guarantee a steady supply of wood for the full 20 years. The demonstration existing laws allow for such streamlined environmental review comes in the face of various congressional efforts to essentially gut the Endangered Species Act and other environmental laws.
• Broad agreement on a “large tree retention strategy” that will focus on the smaller trees clogging the forest while leaving untouched most of the remaining old-growth trees bigger than 18 inches in diameter.
• Inclusion of a possible three-year ramp-up period to build processing plants before the contractor will have to start seriously clearing acreage.
Major potential problems remain — some technical, some fundamental.
In the technical category, Worsley said the RFP doesn’t necessarily guarantee the 20-year contract needed to attract major investors. The RFP offers an initial eight-year contract, with another 12 years in three installments at the “discretion” of the Forest Service.
The four-phase contract enables the Forest Service to hold contractors accountable for hitting their marks. However, Worsley said investors will want more of a guarantee if they perform.
“I absolutely agree with Brad that’s a potential problem,” said Berlioux, who was himself a bidder on the original 4FRI contract eight years ago.
Joyner said the Forest Service can amend the RFP to provide the assurances contractors need, if that becomes a sticking point when bidders respond to the RFP in the next 90 days.
“We’re open to dialogue about any section of the RFP. If a contractor is performing as per the contract, they have no reason not to expect the extensions. Our intention is for the contract to go on for 20 years. But if that language appears to be an impediment, then yes, we do have the ability to amend the RFP.”
The fundamental problem with the RFP remains disposal of the biomass, now at the center of the process. The Arizona Corporation Commission dealt a body blow to forest restoration efforts recently when on a 3-2 vote the commissioners decided not to require Arizona utilities to buy at least 90 megawatts of electricity from biomass annually. The vote made it unlikely utilities like Arizona Public Service will invest $100 million to $200 million in building a new biomass plant or converting an existing coal plant to biomass. The vote also endangered the survival of the Novo Power plant, which relies on long-term contracts with APS and SRP that expire in four years.
Currently, burning wood slash to generate electricity remains the only cost-effective market for biomass — which is the key to making money on thinning projects.
“That’s why we evaluate biomass removal as the most important part of any bid,” said Joyner. Only bids that include removal of at least 80 percent of the biomass will get a high rating. Proposals removing less than half of the biomass won’t qualify for consideration.
Joyner added, “If you want to protect the land from an uncharacteristic fire risk and protect the communities nestled in the forest and ensure the principal water supply for Payson and Phoenix — you have to figure out how to get the biomass off the land. The saw logs are the easy part.”
Berlioux said he believes only bio-electricity can cope with the biomass — at least in the short term. “If we do that, we’re in the game. If we don’t, there is no plan B ... It’s an absolutely no-brainer that we have to keep Novo Power producing 28 megawatts — and either APS or someone else needs to have another 60 megawatts of capacity” to support the thinning of 50,000 acres annually.
“If we’re serious about preserving our forest, preserving our watersheds and saving our communities, we will find a way to do it.”
Worsley said the RFP has given him new hope Novo Power will survive, along with the existing collection of wood processing operations in the White Mountains. He said both APS and SRP have expressed cautious interest in extending the existing contracts — even if biomass power proves more expensive than making electricity from natural gas.
The power plant has already played a key role in clearing perhaps 50,000 acres within 50 miles of the Snowflake facility — projects that likely saved Springerville and Alpine from the Wallow Fire.
“We’d love to team up with someone,” said Worsley. “But if there are bidders trying to come in here, I’m not aware of them. Today, I have no one talking about it except the existing folks.”
He noted that if an operation like an OSB wood manufacturing operation located near Novo Power it would enhance the whole operation — getting more value out of the biomass for almost the same transportation cost.
“If some operation came in and took 70 percent of the biomass so I’m taking 30 percent, then that could expand our radius to 70 miles and increase the number of acres we could support,” he said.
The new RFP process brings stakeholders, environmentalists, contractors, industry, loggers and state and local officials into the process. Those partners will not only bring expertise to bear, but a focus on watersheds and community survival.
Joyner said 4FRI has been anxiously watched by the federal government as the most advanced effort underway to cope with a threat to the entire American West.
“This is the model that Secretary (of Agriculture Sonny) Purdue had in mind when he set us on the course as an agency towards shared stewardship. The intention of 4FRI is to do landscape scale work across the entire landscape to benefit the entire state,” said Joyner.
American flags hang from houses in every little hamlet across this country.
People even fly them from car windows.
Jeremy Friestad found a unique place to fly a flag. The longtime Payson resident put one on a high peak on the side of State Route 87 between Payson and Pine.
Well, three, actually. The first two couldn’t stand the weather.
“I went to check on it for 9/11 and it had blown down,” Friestad said. “I went up there like three days before, so I didn’t want to go back that soon. But it was 9/11, and I wanted to make sure it was standing.
“It was laying there, and I had to re-secure it with bailing wire and restitch it onto the pole because the wind is so violent up there. You can hear it from a mile away whipping in the wind.”
He placed his first flag, a 3-foot-by-5-foot nylon flag, in the spot on Nov. 17, 2018. It lasted until January, when he replaced it with a cotton flag of the same size. The newest flag is a 7-by-10 triple-stitched embroidered cotton blend he hopes lasts longer.
“I can’t remember how many times I’ve had to secure each one. I’m trying to figure out the combination,” he said of the size, material and mounting elements. “I even got this latest one UV treated.”
He said he’ll probably start checking on it more often.
“I should probably go up every week and check on it because it’s one of the more beautiful spots I’ve found,” he said.
He installed two solar lights to make it visible at night.
Unemployed and looking for “new adventures” after 10 years working for the county, Friestad discovered the spot by accident.
“I’ve always just loved that peak because it’s so pronounced,” he said. “I go up there to pray, meditate, enjoy the view and just center myself.”
He’s found unexpected things up there.
“I found petrified sea shells, which is unbelievable that high up,” he said.
But why place a flag there? He said he just believes in what the flag represents.
“The only connection I have with the flag is people love our country enough to fight for our freedom and just the freedom we have in Jesus,” he said. “If we all just had a kind word to say to each other, we wouldn’t have so much death and destruction.”
Everywhere Pine teacher Dean Pederson goes — students run up to greet him.
Like in Denmark.
“He has run into students in Anchorage, Springfield and the Denmark airports, just to name a few,” said his wife Laura.
Maybe that’s why the Arizona Rural Schools Association named the Pine-Strawberry School District the 2019 teacher of the year.
Laura works in the Payson Unified School District and so did Dean. Dean has been teaching for 51 years, including in Payson and Pine. He is currently a PE teacher in Pine.
But Dean didn’t just teach art and physical education. He spent decades counseling students, helping them cope with emotional disabilities, behavior, depression, suicide, drugs/alcohol/tobacco and bereavement. He taught them about life and courage and coping — alongside the lesson plan objectives.
“The students that I have spoken with always said Dean genuinely cared about them and wanted them to be successful. They could always talk to him and trust him,” said Laura.
Dean didn’t just help in school. He has taken Special Olympic students “under his wing,” said Laura. “He has bought countless pairs of shoes for athletes that couldn’t otherwise afford a decent pair of shoes.”
His support even extended to hospital waiting rooms.
“There was a student that had a suicide attempt and we sat in the hospital all night because the student asked for him,” said Laura. “I believe my husband’s heart for children shines through in everything he says and does,” said Laura. “Dean has a big personality, smile and love for life that I believe inspires others to do their best whether they are a student or a fellow educator.”
Gila County School Superintendent Roy Sandoval was one of those educators Dean helped.
“I was a first-year teacher in 1985. Dean Pederson was a veteran teacher. Dean, along with Dennis Pirch, Tommy Meck (Payson High School principal) and some others really took me under their wing and mentored me before ‘mentoring’ was a trendy word,” he said, “I owe a great deal to them.”
In fact, Pirch nominated Dean for this honor, said Laura.
Sandoval commented, “I would simply say that Dean represents the very finest example of what educators should be. He is truly a shining star whose light has shown on three generations of students. He sets a standard to which every young educator (and older) should aspire. I am incredibly fortunate to have worked alongside him and experienced him as an example.”
“I am so proud of my husband,” said Laura, “I’ve always known what an extraordinary person he is, but to see others acknowledge it is heartwarming.”
Laura said her husband can now take his special brand of teaching around the state as he speaks to teachers and administrators as the Rural Teacher of the Year.
“We have not seen a schedule of engagements at this point, but I know he’s excited about it,” said Laura.
“Dean is a very good public speaker who knows how to reach an audience on a personal level.”
But his travel plans had better build in extra time at the airport.
Someone he taught 30 years ago is going to want to talk.
And one thing’s sure about Dean: He’d rather miss a plane than put off a student.
The name remains unlovely, but that’s no reason to look ugly.
In a unanimous vote, the Payson Town Council agreed to upgrade and stabilize the American Gulch from the Sawmill Crossing to the Westerly bridge during its Sept. 12 meeting.
The Arizona Water Protection Fund provided a grant for the project that will “include stabilization structures, including rock ... and larger natural ... material,” wrote the town in its request for bids.
The town will then provide “containerized plants, willows and sedge plugs” to the contractor who will place the plants to improve the riparian area under a separate contract.
The D.D. Haught Excavation, Co., along with Total Maintenance Erosion Control, LLC and M.D. Merret, Inc., submitted bids in early August after the town had to scrap the bid process and start over. Haught’s bid came in at $151,572.
“We’re very happy,” said Sheila DeSchaaf, acting town manager. “As you recall not too many meetings ago we had to reject the only bid we received for this project.”
The council rejected the original bid because of cost.
“During the first round of the bid process, we had four contractors attend the mandatory pre-bid meeting,” said Trever Fleetham, economic development and planning manager. “Only one of the four submitted a bid, which ended up being much higher than our engineer’s cost estimate and grant amount.”
During the second round of the bid process, nine contractors attended which resulted in three bids within the cost parameters.
Fleetham has an idea why contractors had more appropriate bids.
“There was an addendum sent out to all plan holders that contained the engineer’s cost estimate,” said Fleetham. “This, along with the additional questions asked at the second pre-bid meeting, most likely gave the contractors more detail and a better understanding of the project to help them submit bids closer to our engineer’s cost estimate.”
Councilor Suzy Tubbs-Avakian expressed her relief the beautification of the gulch would move forward.
“I am so happy that we were able to receive three bids — very nice to see,” she said.
She then sought to understand why staff thought D.D. Haught had the best bid.
“The bidders, is there something that maybe stood out — or were they just all over the place in their numbers?” she asked.
DeSchaaf wasn’t sure why, but offered an explanation.
“Sometimes it just has to do with how hungry people that are coming in to do the project are for work,” she said.
Councilor Jim Ferris hoped he could see what it would look like and if it would help with the land donation from the adjacent owners.
“It would be nice (to see) what it’s going to look like when it’s done,” he said. “And I hope, too, that it helps with the future possible land exchange deal.”
DeSchaaf explained that staff had already moved “forward accepting some property” west of Westerly bridge.
“And so ideally, we can channel some of the water going across that project in that area and this will be a continuation of this,” she said.
The bid requires D.D. Haught Excavation to start by Oct. 31 and complete the work by Dec. 31, 2019. All equipment must remain at the worksite or near Sawmill Crossing.
Already the town has built a bird watching area to start the gulch’s makeover.
Next up — look at a new name.