4FRI Update:Controversial Forest Restoration Contractor Draws Vote Of Support
Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin — one of the driving forces in the 4FRI movement — was among those openly questioning whether Pioneer had the financing or expertise to undertake the massive thinning project, which depend on the contractor building bio-fuel plants and mills that could turn a profit on millions of saplings and small trees.
#Locked in a campaign for re-election now, she says her doubts about Pioneer’s financing remain — but the effort now relies on Pioneer’s success. Martin has played a leadership role in the effort to convince the U.S. Forest Service to thin fire-prone thickets on the outskirts of Rim Country communities. She has also spearheaded the effort to post water-filled bladders strategically throughout the region to enable fire trucks and firefighting helicopters to quickly fill up storage tanks to contain brush fires.
#Meanwhile, other recent developments have advanced the effort to use a revitalized timber industry to thin millions of acres in Northern Arizona where a century of grazing and fire suppression have created an overgrown, tree-choked forest.
#Tree densities across most of the ponderosa pine forests of Northern Arizona have increased from perhaps 30 per acre to closer to 800 per acre in the past century, according to researchers from Northern Arizona University. A once-open, fire-adapted forest now generates an increasing number of massive crown fires, which threaten to incinerate forested communities.
#It costs up to $1,000 per acre to thin and burn off the slash piles, which means it would cost taxpayers about $6 billion annually to thin those forests by hand. The 4FRI approach would give private contractors a guaranteed 10- or 20-year supply of mostly small-diameter trees as an inducement to invest millions in building mills and power plants that could turn a profit on the vast oversupply of small trees.
#The 4FRI approach could get a boost in November if Flagstaff voters approve a $10 million bond issue to raise money to support forest-thinning projects in the Lake Mary watershed. Backers say that a crown fire that killed all the trees and scorched the soil would result in a dramatic increase in silt building up in Lake Mary, endangering Flagstaff’s already precarious water supply.
#The Schultz Fire two years ago demonstrated the risk to the city. The fire roared through an area that had been earmarked for a 4FRI project. The monsoon rains that followed caused mudslides that inflicted millions of dollars of additional damage on homes.
However, the Forest Service adopted many of the recommendations of the Stakeholder Group, but refused to commit to the preservation of most of the larger trees. Forest Service biologists reasoned that in some areas those larger trees exist in relatively dense clusters.
#That refusal to set a clear size limit on the trees caused concern among some members of the Stakeholder Group, including Martin — who found herself in the unusual position of agreeing with the Centers for Biological Diversity, which had spent years suing to block timber projects on the grounds they continued to target the big, fire-resistant trees.
#The selection of Pioneer after almost two years of study and delay initially posed a near-mutiny among the Stakeholder Group. Pioneer actually offered to pay the Forest Service millions less for the bid than did the contractor who had spent years working with the Stakeholder Group. Moreover, Pioneer omitted any money for monitoring whether the thinning projects had the desired impact on wildlife and watersheds.
#Martin also raised concerns about whether Pioneer had enough financing — and a business plan that would yield a profit on turning small trees into energy and into furniture.
#Forest Service officials in the Southwestern Regional Office in New Mexico made the selection, without direct input from the Stakeholder’s Group.
#Pioneer has said it remains on track to start work in the spring. Marlin Johnson said the company will start off with already-prepared timber sales and send the wood it harvests to existing mills, while the company continues to line up financing for its own mills.
#The company plans to build a 500-acre plant near Winslow, which will convert small trees into finger-jointed materials, like furniture and other wood products. The company also plans to build a bio-diesel fuel plant, which would turn brush and scraps into diesel.
#Johnson noted that Western Energy Solutions/Concord Blue USA will build and operate the bio-diesel plant.
#However, Pioneer has yet to announce any firm commitment for financing of the thinning projects or the Winslow plant.
I’ve heard many times that groups think “you should never take big trees,” e.g. diameter limits But if big trees are in a clump, and you are trying to thin trees, then to get fewer trees in the clump you would have to take out big trees. I’d be interested to have a discussion with someone with this point of view and see what their side of the story is.. that is.. the “no big trees” point of view.