Posted: Jul 23, 2013 By: Hunter Moore
Show Low, AZ — In 2006, a systemic problem with Arizona's national forests, an idea to deal with large scale forest fires, and an unlikely group of public officials, environmentalists, forest industry members, a few scientists and the US Forest Service began a seven year trudge to the present day.
Since that time, thousands of man hours and hundreds of thousands of dollars from the public and private sector have been spent in an effort to create a nationally recognized project called the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI).
The goal of 4FRI has been simple - take timber harvesting in Arizona to a new level. Specifically, from several thousand acres a year to over 30,000 acres per year, so the state can begin outpacing the monstrous fires that have plagued the northern and eastern areas of the state over the last 10-15 years, including this summer's tragic fire in Yavapai County.
On Saturday, the Arizona Republic printed a full update on the current status of the 4FRI project. In short, the Montana contractor, selected by the US Forest Service (Pioneer & Associates), is still floundering in its’ attempts to locate a funding source to complete the task, and now they are attempting to sell their contract to an interested buyer.
“We know theres' an interested buyer. But at this point, the Forest Service can't disclose what is happening behind the scenes,” said Supervisor David Tenney, who has been one of 4FRI's strongest advocates. “However, the announcement that Pioneer intends to divest itself of the 4FRI contract, has the potential to be a step in the right direction, if the Forest Service can make sure their homework is done correctly this time.”
For several months, Tenney and others involved in the 4FRI process have been asking the Forest Service to get their contractor to perform on some kind of a timeline. Frustrations have steadily risen due to the company's lack of substantive progress and decisive action. “In Navajo County, we see 4FRI as a simple public policy tool,” asserted Tenney. “We want to see industry in the forest, and manageable fires that clean the forest instead of destroying it. A solid business plan is the only thing that is going to save our forests. We saw a lot of big promises with Pioneer, but it was mostly fiction. There were too many gaps in their proposals to satisfy simple business questions. This time we need something that will work,” said Tenney. “And it all starts with one thing. Location, location, location.”
Tenney points out that the access to the southwest forests provides a natural competitive advantage for any contractor who has the right plan. “You instantly have a transportation advantage to all the western US markets (Los Angeles, Las Vegas, Salt Lake City, Phoenix, etc.) over your competitors if you have the right product and the right plan. Pioneer did not have that model, and I think the Forest Service realized that way too late. I really hope this new entity will have it where it counts, but regardless, we need the Forest Service to get it right this time.
We need a plan that is going to consume the wood that is out there. That wood needs to be taken out of the forest correctly by people who know what they are doing, and the wood needs to be used in proven products with proven markets. Anything else is going to land us in the same spot we are in now, and I don't know if the Forest Service can retain any credibility if they miss on another feeble attempt.”
Not only are Tenney and others involved with the project anxious to see who has offered to take over Pioneer's job, but there is added anticipation to see how the Forest Service will decide to roll-out the largest Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) in the Nation's history. An EIS is the environmental plan that guides the contractor out in the woods. It provides comprehensive environmental direction for the project and sets the desired outcomes for the forests under the 4FRI umbrella. Why is the EIS so important? The simple answer is that an EIS is often subject to litigation, and if the new contractor proves to be viable, their marching orders could be put in limbo until the courts resolve any issues that have merit.
4FRI stakeholders and members of the general public have been through an extensive comment period that concluded some weeks ago. The Forest Service is now in the process of completing its final analysis of those comments, and is preparing to publish its decision on a variety of issues. Those issues, among others, include wildlife habitat, tree density, old growth and large tree protections.
Navajo County and numerous other stakeholders are keeping their ears to the ground as they wait for the final version of the EIS. “The planning effort on the EIS is just as essential as having a competent contractor,” said Tenney. “How tragic would it be to have a lawsuit hold up a viable contractor? The final EIS could draw lines in the sand that lead to litigation, and we must thwart further delays - especially litigation. I have met with very intelligent and committed people in the Forest Service and USDA, and I hope some of those individuals are given a chance to make this work. We need the finances, the planning and the execution to all come together.”
Tenney was asked if there is enough political and social backing to see the project through. He insists there is. “Look, I realize that asking hard questions may not be comfortable or popular with several of the stakeholders. But the questions have been fair,” said Tenney, “We are here to see this thing through, and nobody wants 4FRI to be a success more than we do. We have a responsibility to our constituents, and I still count the Forest Service as our partners in this effort. We have simply tried to hold the Forest Service and the contractor accountable, and we are basing everything on accomplishments and milestones. In my experience, you can't run an organization any other way and expect it to be successful.”
Does Tenney believe that 4FRI may have received a new lease on life? “Perhaps on the contracting side, but I am going to urge the Forest Service not to squander this opportunity with another flawed evaluation or an unconsidered planning decision. We can’t afford to walk so close to the edge of the cliff and expect a good outcome. Sooner or later a misstep is going to cost us all something that we could have avoided.”