A brilliant disaster.
How else can you describe the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) — the best hope for preventing mega wildfires from consuming millions of acres of forest as well as towns like Payson and Show Low?
The good news: Thinning projects have already saved towns in the midst of a forest ravaged by a century of mismanagement.
The bad news: The only real hope for thinning on the necessary scale has stumbled from disaster to scandal and back.
Five years ago, the Forest Service awarded the first of what proved three contractors an authorization to thin 300,000 acres in a decade. By now, that contractor should have been clearing 50,000 acres annually at no cost to taxpayers and turning little trees into electricity, jet fuel and furniture.
Instead, in five years three contractors have thinned perhaps 9,000 acres. The wood has gone to a straggle of existing, struggling mills to produce wood pellets and a handful of low-value products.
The Forest Service counts nearly 100,000 acres in its 4FRI tally, but that mostly comes from previously approved outside timber sales and wildfires burning within the Tonto, Kaibab, Coconino and Apache-Sitgreaves forests.
So the project supposed to save us all has so far proven a brilliant disaster. It choked on Forest Service red tape, old boy networks, poor research, infighting, sketchy financing and wildly unrealistic plans.
But wait: Hope has blossomed (again).
Good Earth AZ has in recent months turned the contract over to yet another set of investors. NewLife Forest Products has a new name, business plan and thinning strategy.
It’ll all work out just fine now, says the Forest Service.
4FRI operations coordinator Dick Fleishman said he expects to see the thinning pace pick up to 20,000 to 30,000 acres annually in the next “couple of years.”
He noted, “I hate to speculate, because I’ve speculated in the past” but he’s encouraged that NewLife has already expanded from one to five logging sites and promised to make an $8 million investment in a mill that can handle small trees.
“I’m thinking things are a lot better off. They’ve got some capital and some smart people on where to take that wood. We’re light years ahead of where we were this time last year. We’re not where we want to be, but NewLife is definitely moving in the right direction as far as getting the mill capacity.”
Equally important, the Forest Service has completed the environmental analysis on nearly 1 million acres and will complete the analysis on another 1.2 million acres by 2020. The Forest Service has invested millions in completing the two largest environmental studies in U.S. history to streamline all future thinning projects.
The cost of this analysis amounts to about $3.60 per acre. The analysis cost of the old, piecemeal system totaled about $50 per acre.
The 4FRI approach grew out of an agreement between loggers, environmental groups, local officials and researchers on the need to thin the hundreds of millions of small trees choking the forest — while mostly leaving the remaining fire-resistant, old-growth trees in place.
In theory, individual restoration contracts won’t face the threat of lawsuits by environmental groups trying to protect the big trees.
“That’s huge,” said Fleishman. “But we have to rebuild trust. If we don’t adjust, we deserve to get hammered. It’s all about trust.”
Addressing the years it has taken to do those studies, 4FRI planning coordinator and director of the Rim Country planning team Annette Fredette said, “this thing is huge and the specialist reports are huge — we had to just make sure everything was in there. Everyone was watching 4FRI to see if something this big and this collaborative could succeed. And we did succeed. Everyone is positive about this — but everyone is still watching.”
A troubled history
Still, after five years of confusion, false starts, foolish promises, sweetheart deals and bureaucratic blunders — 4FRI has so far mostly demonstrated the daunting complexity of saving millions of acres of forest from the effects of a century of grazing, logging and fire suppression.
4FRI started in hope and glory when a core group of environmentalists, foresters, loggers and local officials like Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin found common ground after years of effort.
Groups like the Center for Biological Diversity spent years suing to stop timber sales focused on removing the last of the big, old-growth trees. Once these big trees dominated the forest — now they compose less than 3 percent of the total, according to some estimates.
A century of grazing and fire suppression by the Forest Service snuffed out the once helpful, low-intensity ground fires, producing a dramatic increase in tree densities. In the past 20 years, that has led to a lethal increase in megafires like the Wallow.
Timber industry shut down
The lack of the old-growth trees existing mills were built to process and successful environmental lawsuits shut down most Southwestern logging.
The Forest Service has spent the last 30 years ineffectually seeking a solution to the desperate problems caused by eliminating fire from the system.
Starting in the 1970s, the auditor general’s office and the Congressional Budget Office have regularly pointed out that the Forest Service and the federal Bureau of Land Management have no plan for dealing with the inexorable increase in megafires. The cost of fighting those fires has grown to more than $2 billion annually.
Back in 1994, the Report of the National Commission on Wildfire Disasters concluded “the vegetative conditions that have resulted from past management policies have created a fire environment so disaster-prone that it will periodically and tragically overwhelm our best efforts at fire prevention and suppression. The resulting loss of life and property, damage to natural resources and enormous costs to the public treasury are preventable.”
Congress responded with the National Fire Plan and the Healthy Forest Restoration Act in 2003, which required the federal government to undertake fuel reduction and forest thinning efforts. But the directive came with only a little new money as the cost of fighting wildfires devastated the Forest Service budget.
The 2009 FLAME Act required development of a National Cohesive Strategy — which is still being pieced together with little new funding.
Regionally, the Forest Service did establish the White Mountain Stewardship Project to foster the growth of a local, small-tree logging industry. However, the Forest Service each year provided only a fraction of the promised money, crippling the program.
4FRI was supposed to change all that by offering so many small trees that investors would build new mills, power plants and other facilities to turn a profit on the bounty of biomass.
The best single description of the Forest Service’s disastrous effort to reinvent the timber industry to thin perhaps 3 million acres from 800 trees per acre to 100 trees per acre remains Claudine LoMonaco’s investigative account published in High Country News in 2017 (hcn.org/issues/46, 15/lost-in-the-woods).
The stakeholders group that developed the small-tree-focused 4FRI restoration strategy spent two years working with a Frenchman named Pascal Berlioux, who had operated plants turning wood scraps into high-tech plywood called oriented strand board. He worked with the stakeholders group on the economics of small tree products, signed onto the agreement to leave almost all of the older trees greater than 16 inches in diameter. He also raised $400 million in pledges of investor capital to build OSB plants.
So the stakeholders group was astonished when the Forest Service’s regional office instead awarded the massive contract to the just-formed Pioneer Forest Products, which included as a main operator a retiring Forest Service forester. The owner of the company was Herman Houck, who claimed long experience in the wood products industry and Marlin Johnson, a member of what came to be known as “the brotherhood” of Forest Service timber specialists in the regional office.
Pioneer made big promises, but thinned only a few acres. The company never lined up financing and never built any mills or other facilities. The Forest Service never checked out the many questionable claims Pioneer made in submitting its business model.
LoMonaco’s investigations showed that Houck had operated a timber mill, but sold the mill in bankruptcy in 1969.
The Forest Service then approved the shift of the contract to Good Earth AZ, owned by investors from the Sultanate of Oman. The company had no working mills and no experience with logging. Most of its experience involved overseas energy projects.
Once again, the Forest Service didn’t look into the background of the investors or claims it could turn wood scrap into jet fuel.
LoMonaco’s investigation revealed these claims were also mostly smoke and mirrors. Most of the overseas plants the company claimed it operated either didn’t exist or had never produced the products claimed.
Good Earth worked for four years trying to get financing for mills, buy a fleet of logging trucks and start the thinning work. It managed to thin a few thousand acres, but ended up in multiple legal tangles.
Meanwhile, a frustrated Eastern Arizona Counties Association hired Berlioux to head up a separate thinning effort in Apache and Navajo counties. The group hoped to keep the companies started by the White Mountain Stewardship Project in business. The coalition has grabbed up thinning contracts and cleared about three times as much acreage as the succession of 4FRI contractors.