So if you’re feeling discouraged about the government response to the pandemic, consider this little comparison.

Since the virus arrived in February, the government has passed a $3.3 trillion relief measure, supported research that has produced at least two highly-effective vaccines and poured billions into upgrading the public health system.

And all that while the U.S. Forest Service has been pondering contracts to thin maybe a million acres of overgrown forest land in Rim Country and the White Mountains, which remains the only way to prevent the kinds of megafires that have overwhelmed California this year.

Meanwhile, at least two drug companies say they can produce about 500 million doses of a highly effective vaccine by April.

Oh, that’s about when the Forest Service expects to award contracts to undertake thinning projects as part of 4FRI, which has been all but stalled for the past decade, according to the latest update offered at the Natural Resources Working Group’s regular meeting on Tuesday.

All right. Maybe that’s not fair. The pandemic has cost trillions upon trillions and killed more than 249,000 Americans.

But then, just shelling out taxpayer money to thin a million acres would cost about $800 million and likely prevent the kind of megafires that this year burned 4 million acres, killed 46 people and destroyed about 14,000 homes and buildings. The federal government spent $2.7 billion fighting those fires.

Still, 4FRI does seem to be moving painfully slow, concluded the loggers, mill operators and other industry and environmental groups gathered for the Resource Group’s meeting.

The original schedule called for 4FRI to thin 50,000 acres a year. The project has managed more like 14,000 acres of mechanical thinning annually for the last decade. Since 2010, the project has thinned 140,000 acres and managed prescribed or natural fires on 860,000 acres, according to 4FRI spokesman Shayne Martin.

The project has gone so slowly that the handful of existing mills worry they’ll run out of wood — and miss out on near-record timber prices.

But don’t worry, 4FRI head Jeremy Kreuger assured the eagerly waiting industry representatives.

“We have notified (contract) offerers that are in the competitive range,” said Kreuger. “This is an important milestone in the evaluation process.”

The Forest Service first took bids early this year and originally planned to award contracts this summer. But the Forest Service extended the evaluation process into next year as it responded to suggestions from the bidders and refined the prescriptions for the thinning projects. One of the biggest issues remains how to get rid of the 50 tons of biomass on each thinned acre while still making the project profitable for the bidder — at no cost to the government. The Arizona Corporation Commission squashed hopes it would create a market for that biomass by requiring Arizona utilities to generate 60 or 90 megawatts of electricity annually from biomass.

The lack of a market for biomass and the lack of money for the kinds of subsidies that made the earlier White Mountains Stewardship Project viable has stalled thinning projects.

Kreuger said the conversations with contractors about their initial proposals “allows those offerers to revise their bids based on weaknesses, adverse past performance and technical aspects of each proposal. Our evaluation team is participating in a robust discussion period before the contracting officer requests final contract offers. This evaluation process is certainly taking time, but that’s where we stand right now.”

Kreuger said the Forest Service remains on track to award contracts sometime between now and March of 2021. 

The 4FRI project remains the only currently viable way to reduce tree densities on several million acres of northern Arizona forests from about 1,000 trees per acre to more like 100 trees per acre. The pre-settlement forest had less than 100 trees per acre and was resistant to frequent, low-intensity ground fires that burned grass, shrubs and small trees without reaching the lower branches of the old-growth ponderosa pines. After a century of clear-cutting, grazing and fire suppression, wildfires turn into crown fires thanks to the tons of accumulated dead wood on every acre and the thickets of saplings. The fires climb readily into the lower branches of the big trees and then race from treetop to treetop along interlocking limbs.

This has produced the new era of megafires, like the Wallow and Rodeo-Chediski as well as the fire that consumed Paradise, Calif., killing 85 people. Show Low, Pinetop, Payson and Pine all face a higher risk of catastrophic fire than did Paradise, according to one national study.

But hey, we survived another wildfire year.

And maybe the Forest Service will actually issue contracts by April.

At about the same time we get a COVID vaccine.

Contact the writer at paleshire@payson.com

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