HOLBROOK — Navajo County has launched an effort revive the 4-Forests Restoration Project Initiative to save forests, watersheds and communities in the White Mountains.

The county’s alarmed call for action came after the collapse of three years of effort by the US Forest Service to find a bidder to thin some 500,000 acres in the region.

“The safety of our communities and economies in the White Mountains are directly tied to forest health, and the cancellation of the RFP leaves our communities vulnerable to catastrophic forest fires,” said Navajo County Supervisor Jason Whiting in a release this week. “We want our residents to know that the County took immediate action and reached out to our Congressional Delegation to express our concern and frustration with the cancellation and we have already begun to engage directly with the Forest Service and other stakeholders to develop possible solutions that preserve our homes, businesses, and industries.”

The county has already hosted the first in a series of meetings with the Forest Service, forest industry leaders and utility companies to try to salvage the large-scale thinning effort.

The Forest Service has been laboring for a decade to work with a reinvented timber industry to reduce the risk of town and watershed destroying megafires by restoring the forest by reducing tree densities from perhaps 1000 per acre to more like 100 per acre.

The Forest Service awarded phase 1 4FRI contracts about eight years ago, hoping a series of contractors would thin 50,000 acres a year. Instead, they’ve thinned more like 15,000 acres in the past five years — with additional acres treated through prescribed burns. Those projects were mostly in the Flagstaff area.

The second phase was supposed to thin sickly, overgrown, fire prone forests in the White Mountains and Rim Country. The Forest Service spent more than a year in negotiations with two final bidders, trying to figure out how small-timber logging companies could make money on thinning tree thickets at no cost to taxpayers.

The Forest Service finally gave up a few weeks ago, concluding it had no money to guarantee the bidders against the loss of hundreds of millions of dollars in necessary investments to build new facilities that could handle the small trees and biomass. That included high-tech plywood and composite wood products, biomass burning power plants and new, small-wood mills.

In the end, the bidders would have had to bear the risk of an interruption of the wood supply megafires, drought or lawsuits — while having no guaranteed market for the wood slash and biomass that represented half of the material they would have to remove — often more than 50 tons on each acre.

The Navajo County release concluded, “landscape-scale accelerated forest restoration is critical for protecting our communities from catastrophic wildfires; restoring critical watershed functions that serve major metropolitan areas; preserving crucial ecological systems; and supporting local rural economy through forestry, ranching and, most importantly, recreation economies. The sudden cancellation of the RFP interrupts a process that has been developing for the past three years.”

The earlier White Mountains Stewardship Program thinned some 50,000 acres and nurtured a local network of thinning operations, sawmills and the NovoPower biomass burning plant near Snowflake. The federal government provided a roughly $500 per acre subsidy to get rid of the low-value biomass, but never provided enough money to thin more than a few thousand acres annually. Nonetheless, the thinning projects completed through that process are credited with saving Alpine and Springerville from the Wallow Fire — still the largest in state history.

NovoPower remains the only biomass burning plant in the state, but it’s future hinges on the willingness of Arizona Public Service and Salt River Project to extended their current long-term contracts to buy power generated from burning biomass. However, the plan can only burn enough biomass to support the thinning of about 15,000 acres of forest annually.

Whiting said the county had immediately contacted Arizona representatives in Congress — including Rep. Tom O’Halleran (D-Oak Creek). The county’s trying to arrange an onsite tour of forest thinning projects for a congressional delegation.

O’Halleran has also condemned the failure of 4FRI to award phase 2 contracts. He hopes that passage of two different infrastructure packages in Congress would free up billions for forest restoration projects throughout the west, but those infrastructure plans remain mired in partisan divisions in Congress and the Senate.

Whiting said the county will sponsor a series of discussions in an effort to get the bidding process back on track.

“The USFS, forest industry leaders and key utility companies agreed to work collaboratively to develop realistic, long-term solutions to address the overdue forest management concerns. A second roundtable will be held next with additional stakeholder groups, including conservation organizations, and other local and tribal governments to define next steps for expedited forest management.”

Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at paleshire@payson.com

(3) comments

Horse Rider

We have two ways to go on this. One is to thin out the trees in a systematic way. Burning the biomass collected in an electrical generating station with modern emission controls would make the most efficient use of it at the least environmental cost. The other alternative is to wait for a wildfire to make a clean sweep of everything, leaving behind destroyed homes and businesses and burn scars that funnel flash floods during rainstorms. Note to environmentalists: Wildfires don't come with emission controls. The air pollution they create is the worst of all.

Justsayin141

Exactly. Get off the USFS and go to the Republicans in the AZ Corp Commission. Stop playing games. We don't have time for that anymore.

Justsayin141

Great article and the comment is right on. Of course Arizona has to be the one with a fake Senator messing up progress for the entire country. We need to look at those publicly held offices at Az Corporate Commission for the real source of the problem also. It's just life or death probably for the higher elevations in the county. Holbrook won't burn. So there. Maybe it's not important after all.....

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