Rep. Tom O’Halleran’s alarmed and outraged by the collapse of the 4-Forests Restoration Initiative process — and determined to find more federal money to finally thin millions of acres of overgrown forests in Northern Arizona.
A massive infrastructure bill stuck in Congress may provide the best hope of finding the money to get that done, he said in an interview.
“I do know that we’re working on this on a continual basis,” he said of infrastructure bills with billions in money that could be used to build infrastructure or provide subsidies and guarantees to thin the forests. O’Halleran represents Congressional District 1, which includes most of Northern Arizona.
The Forest Service recently cancelled a request for bids for a 20-year contract to thin nearly a million acres in Rim Country and the White Mountains. The Forest Service launched the effort to find a contractor more than two years ago. Earlier, congress extended the maximum term of a Forest Service contract from five to 20 years in hopes of attracting a long-term bidder.
However, the announcement cancelling the negotiations with the two final bidders cited both a difficulty in dealing with low-value biomass and providing a guarantee that would convince the final bidder to invest millions in needed infrastructure. One bidder proposed building an oriented strand board manufacturing plant and the other had suggested building a new sawmill and processing plant to deal with small trees. Both bids would rely on also having market to deal with the biomass — like generating electricity.
O’Halleran said the federal and state governments need to provide the guarantees necessary to strike a deal with responsible bidders. The efforts to thin the forests have essentially been stalled for nearly a decade as the Forest Service has desperately sought a way to get the job done without either a subsidy — or a guaranteed market for biomass.
“What happens if there’s a huge fire and 500,000 or 800,000 acres burn? We need some way of awarding that contract to be able to protect people who have made that huge investment.”
The process is badly broken, he said in light of the 18-month effort by the Forest Service to close the deal with one or the two final contractors.
“We need more experts to come in to help out to get that contract moving and address the realities of today,” he said.
He said the $1.2 trillion infrastructure plan passed by the Senate and stalled in the House doesn’t have a lot of new money for things like forest thinning. It’s more focused on water and transportation infrastructure. However, he said a second, $3.5 trillion package spread out over the next decade would include as much as $40 billion for forest management and wildfire mitigation.
The first, $1.2 trillion bipartisan package is stuck in Congress, because some Democrats have said they want to vote on the larger, long-term package before they’ll vote on the hard-infrastructure bill. Both bills this week are also tangled in the partisan standoff over whether to raise the debt ceiling before the nation defaults on its nearly $30-trillion debt.
O’Halleran said the entire state needs to avert forest-destroying megafires, not just forested communities in Rim Country and the White Mountains.
The Valley’s water supply depends heavily on forest thinning, which protects reservoirs from filling in with mud after megafires strip away the trees and leave the soil hydrophobic — unable to absorb water normally.
The Forest Service originally set a goal of thinning 50,000 acres annually, reducing tree densities from an unhealthy 1,000 trees per acre to a far less fire prone 100 trees per acre. This approach would leave most of the remaining, fire-resistant, old-growth trees greater than 18 inches in diameter, but remove most of the smaller trees. Forest densities have increased dramatically due to 100 years of cattle grazing, clear-cutting and fire suppression.
However, long delays in awarding contracts, unrealistic business plans, contractors without the resources to deliver and a lack of market for biomass has ensured that contractors to this point have managed only about 1,500 acres of mechanical thinning operations per year for the past eight years.
The key remains either a market for the biomass or taxpayer subsidies to get rid of the branches, saplings and debris that make up half the material contractors must remove.
“If we’re going to get into the scale of landscape thinning, we’re going to have to do something much larger than 50,000 acres a year. We need to do 100,000 or 150,000,” said O’Halleran.
And that would require not only ensuring the existing Snowflake biomass burning NovoPower plant stays in business, but additional biomass burning plants. Arizona Public Service has proposed converting the coal-burning Cholla plant to burn biomass. However, Arizona Corporation Commission refused to issue a mandate that would have enabled the power company to recover its costs.
“The corporation commission couldn’t find the votes there,” said a frustrated O’Halleran. “They were afraid that all of Arizona customers were going to have to pay for something that’s up on the forest — not understanding that these forests are a resource for the entire state of Arizona, whether it’s tourism or water management. The water that comes out of these forests sustains the metropolitan areas.”
He said it’s a problem facing the entire west, as the number of town-destroying wildfires explodes. The Forest Service is currently spending $2-$4 billion annually on fighting fires- but only a fraction of that on thinning and managed fires to reduce the chances of a catastrophic blaze.
The earlier White Mountain Stewardship program thinned 50,000 acres, but required a subsidy of about $500 per acre. With that subsidy, it would cost $1 billion to thin 2-million acres. The White Mountains Stewardship program is widely credited with saving both Alpine and Springerville from the Wallow Fire by creating thinned buffer zones where firefighters stopped the fire from advancing on those communities.
“The taxpayer is going to pay for it one way or the other,” said O’Halleran. “It’s not just that we’re going to cut down these trees and the contractor is going to make money. We make billions from the fact that we have these forests. The management of these forests has been unacceptable for generations. The Tonto and Apache Sitgreaves forests were both created to manage the watershed — and now those watersheds are threatened because of the management of the forest.”