Following years of debate surrounding the project, top Forest Service officials yesterday hailed a key step forward for the nation's largest forest restoration initiative.

The agency yesterday announced that Coconino National Forest Supervisor Earl Stewart and Kaibab National Forest Supervisor Mike Williams have signed the final decision document for the Four Forest Restoration Initiative's first environmental impact statement (EIS). It is the largest restoration project ever analyzed in the agency's history, the Forest Service said.

The Four Forest Restoration Initiative, or 4FRI, is a public-private collaborative project initiated in 2010 that ultimately aims to thin 2.4 million acres of dangerously overgrown ponderosa pine forest in northern Arizona.

The EIS approves restoration work on over 586,000 acres of federal land, including thinning, prescribed burning and watershed maintenance. Environmental groups and forest managers say the work is urgently needed to reduce the risk of devastating wildfires in northern Arizona's forests.

"The Forest Service is accelerating the restoration and management of our national forests, despite budgetary challenges, using innovative and collaborative strategies to work across large landscapes," USDA Undersecretary for Natural Resources and the Environment Robert Bonnie said in a statement, adding that the 4FRI project "is one of the best examples of this approach."

Supporters say the final EIS will provide certainty to a private contractor involved with the project, allowing it to speed the pace of restoration, which is today falling significantly short of its stated goal to thin 2,000 to 2,500 acres per month.

"We are grateful to all involved that this milestone has been achieved," said Paul Summerfelt, a member of the 4FRI stakeholder group and the city of Flagstaff's fire management officer. "We look forward to active implementation and continued progress."

4FRI contractor pays a visit to D.C. politicians
The announcement of the final EIS comes as the CEO and vice president of the private company that was awarded the contract, Good Earth Power AZ LLC, travels to visit with congressional leaders and the Forest Service in Washington, D.C., this week, according to a newsletter sent out by the company yesterday.

The company said it has also held meetings in Arizona with Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick (D-Ariz.) and Paul Gosar (R-Ariz.) and the staff of Sen. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.) over the past several months.

Headquartered in Oman, Good Earth Power AZ LLC is the second contractor attempting to build a business around the initiative, which requires that much of the restoration costs be covered by the value of trees removed from the forest. The first company awarded the contract, Pioneer Forest Products Corp., was unable to secure financial backing (ClimateWire, Oct. 29, 2013).

Summerfelt and others involved in 4FRI say it presents a challenge to the industry because most trees that need to be removed are too small to be used in traditional, more profitable lumber products.

Additionally, the forest industry declined in northern Arizona in the 1990s, meaning that Good Earth Power must re-establish infrastructure like mills to complete the project. So far, the company said, it has invested $12 million in 4FRI.

For example, in the newsletter sent yesterday by Good Earth Power, the company stated that trucks and chip trailers needed to complete the contract "have been very hard to come by in Northern Arizona," so the company recently had to create its own transport capacity through Good Earth Trucking Ltd.

Also, the city of Williams, Ariz., temporarily revoked Good Earth Power's burning and grading permits in March following an unattended underground fire in a burn pile. The land was intended for use as a mill, and the company acknowledged that finalizing the location for a place to transport harvested biomass has been a "major challenge."

"No biomass can be trucked to that site until an operating permit is in hand from the City of Williams," Good Earth Power stated in its newsletter yesterday, adding that the company "is working to get an operating permit from the City of Williams as fast as legally possible."

'Baby steps' or moving forward?
As a result of these and other hurdles, the company acknowledged in March that it was cutting an average of 625 acres a month, rather than 2,500 acres a month as it had initially planned.

This has fueled skepticism from stakeholders like the Center for Biological Diversity's Todd Schulke, who questioned Good Earth Power's ability to fulfill the contract to treat 300,000 acres over the 10-year period.

"They're taking baby steps, if that," Schulke said in an interview earlier this month. "The clock's been ticking for a while."

But Summerfelt believes the final EIS will speed Good Earth Power's progress.

"It will provide industry the acres and the volumes that they really need to invest and move forward," Summerfelt said.

In Good Earth Power's newsletter sent yesterday, the company stated that it welcomed the signing of the EIS, but added that "we have been asked whether the signing of the EIS will give [Good Earth Power AZ] more confidence in making a 4FRI investment. Our reply? We have not hesitated to invest in this project from the start, despite the persistent risk that acres could be withdrawn from our contract due to USFS funding issues, outside litigation or wildfire."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC. www.eenews.net, 202-628-6500