FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — The U.S. Forest Service has put the brakes on a effort to thin hundreds of square miles of land in Arizona to reduce the risk of catastrophic wildfires, drawing sharp rebukes from elected officials.
The Four Forest Restoration Initiative is the largest of its kind within the agency that oversees more than 300,000 square miles (780,000 square kilometers) of forests and grasslands in the U.S. The venture launched more than a decade ago was a rare showing of consensus among longtime adversaries like loggers and environmentalists to reshape forests on a large scale.
But the restoration project has struggled to keep pace with the need to return Arizona's mixed-conifer and ponderosa pine forest now prone to massive wildfires to a more natural state. It hit another snag this week when the Forest Service decided not to award a contract for work on 812 square miles (2,104 square kilometers).
Instead, the agency said it will regroup and seek input from others on ways to lessen the financial risk to potential bidders and itself. Further changes could come in the total amount of land to be treated, and requirements for contractors to haul away debris and maintain roads, officials said.
“Every year what we see in western forests is a stark reminder of what’s at stake in Arizona’s forests,” said Jeremy Kruger, the chief executive of the project.
The Forest Service first put out the contract to bid two years ago with a goal of selecting a winner by May 2020. It underwent multiple amendments, including a reduction in size, before final proposals were due this past May. The agency notified bidders this week that it would pull back the project.
Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, the state's two U.S. senators and U.S. Rep. Tom O'Halleran slammed the decision.
“They've squandered a tremendous opportunity to address the needs of our national forests here in northern Arizona,” O'Halleran told The Associated Press on Thursday.
The entire restoration project eventually will cover 3,750 square miles (15 square kilometers) along a prominent line of cliffs that divides Arizona's forested high country from the desert. On average, about 20 square miles (51 square kilometers) of dense forest has been thinned per year, representing about a quarter of the annual goal.
Historically, wildfires regularly swept through the landscape clearing the forest floor and promoting the growth of grass and wildflowers. Fire suppression has changed that, resulting in thick stands of trees that fuel wildfires and kick up the intensity.
The second phase that was canceled included work on the Apache-Sitgreaves, Coconino, Kaibab and Tonto national forests over 20 years.
Godfrey Forest Products LLC was among the bidders, proposing to turn small-diameter trees into oriented strand board that's commonly used for flooring and roofing in homes, said the company's chief executive, John Godfrey. He said Thursday that the multiple amendments hinted that the management group wasn't deeply familiar with large-scale projects.
While the delays were frustrating, he said he's invested in continuing with the process and it would be worse had the Forest Service walked away entirely.
“If it takes another year to get it right, then so be it,” he said.
Brad Worsley of Novo Power also was among the bidding groups. He runs a facility in Snowflake that burns tree limbs, needles and other woody debris for energy. He said the industry looks at long-term contracts like the forest restoration project as a mechanism to make further investments in businesses with the understanding of normal risks.
One of the concerns was that the Forest Service didn't provide certainty on what would happen if a wildfire scorched part of the treatment area or a court shut down timber activity in the forests, he said. Worsley cited a 2019 decision in a lawsuit that alleged the Forest Service wasn't doing enough to protect and track Mexican spotted owls and halted tree-cutting activity for months.
Worsley specifically is looking for assurance that he can continue to supply power from biomass to stay involved in the project. But he questions whether more discussion will be effective.
“I'm not saying we're not going to participate and help,” he said. “This is a purpose for which we get up everyday."