The largest wildfire prevention effort of its kind has stalled out. And many of the collaborators are frustrated with the company that won the a contract a year ago. Questions have come up surrounding its competence to handle a project of this scale. Environmentalists are calling for an investigation.
The Four Forests Restoration Initiative is the result of dozens of collaborators — government officials, conservationists, scientists — all agreeing that the dry, overgrown forests of the western United States need to be thinned. But that costs money, so 4FRI, as its called, asked the timber industry to get involved.
Henry Provencio of the U.S. Forest Service said in three years the 4FRI partners have actually accomplished a lot including the environmental assessment, identifying the acres to be thinned and actually agreeing on a plan.
"We’re laying the foundation," Provencio said. "You gotta walk before you run. It’s easy to be reactive when we see large fires throughout the West, especially when they’re in your backyard."
As 4FRI’s team leader, Provencio has fielded many calls from impatient stakeholders and admits he’s not a patient person either.
"Yeah, acres have been treated," Provencio said. "Are they at scale that we’d like to see? No, absolutely not. They’re not at the scale the forest service would like to see the stakeholders and I would say the contractor."
Under its contract with the Forest Service, Pioneer Forest Products must thin 300,000 acres over the next decade and turn the small-diameter trees into wood for furniture. So far the company has thinned a small fraction of the forest — 500 acres. And Pioneer’s Marlin Johnson said it still hasn’t secured financing for more thinning and a mill.
"The avenues of funding we thought were open to us when we turned in our bid and when we talked to the Forest Service about it closed for various reasons," Johnson said.
Johnson said they did find another company that was willing to buy out its contract.
And these missteps have led the Center for Biological Diversity to a call for an investigation. Co-founder Todd Schulke was one of 4FRI’s original collaborators.
"Did the Forest Service actually do adequate due diligence in evaluating both Pioneer’s financial capability, which apparently they have none, or their business plan, which really doesn’t pass the laugh test if you talk to industry professionals?" Schulke said.
The Forest Service said the agency did do an extensive evaluation of Pioneer’s proposal.
But what’s been even more frustrating to a number of people is there’s another company ready and waiting to take on the initiative. Arizona Forest Restoration Partners’ Don Walters says the company’s owner, Jake Long, has bought 250 acres to build a mill in Winslow to show they’re sincere.
"We have been patiently waiting for Pioneer Products to either perform or relinquish their contract," Walters said.
Walters said he’s disappointed to hear Pioneer wants to relinquish the 4FRI contract to a foreign company. The Forest Service could not comment on the potential new contractor.
But Arizona’s congressional delegation has had a lot to say on the issue. Senators John McCain and Jeff Flake introduced legislation that gives federal agencies more incentive to contract with the timber industry. Arizona Congresswoman Ann Kirkpatrick supports policies that would make projects like 4FRI more streamlined.
"We’re still talking with folks on the ground and at the federal level and impressing upon them how critical it is that this 4FRI contractor obtain the funding necessary to move this project forward so we can protect our community from these devastating wildfires," Kirkpatrick said.
Kirkpatrick said a lot of people are watching to see how successful 4FRI is, as it was originally seen as a model for future large scale forest restoration partnerships around the country. In the meantime Pioneer, or whichever company takes over the contract, has another 15,000 acres to thin before the end of the fiscal year.