Forest Service seeks bids to thin dense stands of trees

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — The U.S. Forest Service, faced with the slow pace of forest thinning, is seeking proposals to remove dense stands of trees in a wide swath of Arizona to help prevent wildfires.

The work is part of the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, the largest project of its kind within the Forest Service. It eventually will cover 3,750 square miles (9,712 square kilometers) along a prominent line of cliffs that divides Arizona's high country from the desert.

The bidding opened Monday for work on up to 1,278 square miles (3,310 square kilometers) in parts of the Kaibab, Coconino, Apache-Sitgreaves and Tonto national forests. The proposals are due Dec 16. Contracts would be awarded in April.

"The intent of the RFP is to support existing industry, attract new sustainable industry and to significantly increase the pace and scale of forest restoration while creating jobs, restoring our forests, protecting communities and downstream water supplies," regional forester Cal Joyner said in a statement.

Those keeping tabs on the project have been frustrated by the pace of the work done so far. The Forest Service set a goal of having 78 square miles (202 square kilometers) mechanically thinned each year, but only about a third of that has been done on average.

"We all know how underwhelming the results of 4FRI have been," Coconino County Supervisor Art Babbott said at a recent science conference in Flagstaff.

The Forest Service won't be alone in reviewing the proposals. The Phoenix-based Salt River Project, the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management, the Arizona Commerce Authority and the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation helped develop the bidding materials and will help vet submissions.

Contracts can run up to 20 years, made possible by provisions in 2018 federal legislation on forest management. The bill also allows the Forest Service to give preference to bidders who propose innovative solutions for making forests healthier.

Contractors have struggled to find a market for the small-diameter trees, woody debris and other byproducts of mechanical thinning that makes economic sense, especially on the west side of the project area around Flagstaff and Williams. They've also been burdened by regulations that require them to weigh all the material and mark every tree, Babbott said.

"They will just not enter the market because there's limited places to take the product," said Forest Service spokesman Dick Fleishman.

Some of the material removed from the forest has become pallets, strand board, mulch or mixed with coal to experiment with energy production. The Forest Service said it recognizes that bidders might have to construct mills or other infrastructure to make the contract worthwhile.

The Salt River Project relies on runoff from forests in eastern and northern Arizona to supply water to cities, farms and businesses in metropolitan Phoenix. Without thinning, the forests are more prone to high-intensity wildfires that can harden the ground, sending water, ash, plant material and sediment quickly into reservoirs when it rains.

Bruce Hallin, the utility's director of water supply, said some cities have had to retrofit water treatment plants to ensure that material doesn't pass through people's faucets.

"We're all very concerned that all those forests within our watersheds are highly susceptible to catastrophic wildfire, and conceivably we could lose all those forested lands," he said.