Forest Service reins in Arizona forest-thinning project

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. — Federal officials who oversee a troubled forest-thinning project in northern Arizona are stepping on the brakes, saying they lack needed information.

The massive project which aims to speed up forest restoration has been delayed indefinitely, the Arizona Daily Sun reported.

The stoppage has surprised stakeholders, who had been under the impression that the Forest Service was making progress. Many of the stakeholders see a large-scale contract as the only way the forest health project will reach its goal of mechanically thinning 78 square miles per year.

But at a meeting last month, the Forest Service announced it won’t be soliciting contract proposals for 781 square miles of land that the agency had initially said it would put up for proposals.

Forest Service officials said they haven’t been able to gather enough information on the yield and value of the timber that would be covered in a contract. Officials also said the agency hasn’t been able to do necessary modeling on what sort of industry could make a contract financially viable and sustainable by providing nearby demand for wood.

The Four Forest Restoration Initiative was awarded in 2012. Since then, workers have thinned just 17 square miles of the 468 square miles expected to be thinned by 2022.

The contractor hasn’t built a major wood processing facility near Flagstaff or Williams, which had long been promised.

“It’s about timing,” said Henry Provencio, the initiative’s innovations and efficiencies coordinator. “We’re still trying to figure out exactly where and what kind and what tools are available to issue a (request for proposal). We’ve still got more questions than answers.”

Stakeholders, however, contend that the whole point of issuing a request for proposals now is to get answers the Forest Service said it lacks.

Coconino County Supervisor Art Babbott said a request for proposals would be an opportunity to hear from industry on their thoughts for scaling up and increasing the pace of restoration.

Pascal Berlioux, a stakeholder and executive director of the Eastern Arizona Counties Organization, said a lack of wood processing industry also isn’t a good excuse for delaying the issuing of a contract.

“We’re doing our due diligence and part of that is we’re not going to arbitrarily throw a contract out there until we are better prepared to get to a successful contract,” Provencio said. “We basically came to the realization that the better information we could provide (potential contractors), the better proposals we could receive and that we’re not quite ready to give them all the information.”

The agency also plans to hire a contractor to evaluate business proposals when the Forest Service does issue the thinning contract, Provencio said.

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