The forest service wanted to save us from forest fires.
But it’s time to develop a backup plan.
The negotiations on the Forest Service’s Request for Proposal (RFP) had been switched on and off in the past 18 months.
But now the forest service has canceled the tender for the second phase of the massive Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI).
The forest service promised to start over after failing to come to terms with two serious bidders, each of whom had spent hundreds of thousands of dollars jumping through the bureaucratic hurdles of the process.
Negotiations reportedly failed due to a lack of a substandard biomass market and an investment guarantee should the forest service fail to meet the end of a 20-year contract.
“Overall, the government comes to the conclusion that the requirements for meeting the renovation goals (as currently defined in the tender) are not adequately tailored to the needs of the industry. In addition, significant financial and investment risks remain that ultimately pose a performance risk for the government, ”4FRI CFO Jeremy Kruger said in a press release this week.
“The Forest Service recognizes all of the time and effort put into this tender by all parties. We are heavily invested and intend to work with our partners on a new proposal as soon as possible. Our next step is to partner with our partners, stakeholders, industry and elected officials to discuss everything we have learned and how we can move forward. “
The failure of the negotiations resulted in a quick, fearful and indignant reaction.
“The failure threatens the health of our forests and the safety of many families, businesses and communities in Arizona,” said Congressman Tom O’Halleran, whose district includes the White Mountains and southern Gila County. “The forest service had more than enough time to face the challenges and even put out 11 amendments. It is disappointing that the Forest Service is not doing more to reduce the risk of catastrophic forest fires with the authorities and resources that Congress has allocated to improve forest management, prevent forest fires, and minimize the severity of forest fires. “
In the first phase of the 4FRI effort, the Forest Service spent more than eight years finding a contractor who could clear up to 50,000 acres of overgrown forest annually. This contract covered approximately 500,000 acres, mostly near Flagstaff. The range of contractors selected has never thinned out more than about 1,500 acres per year.
The second phase contract for 500,000 to 800,000 acres further east was designed to apply the lessons of the first, unsuccessful contracts. But after almost two years of effort, the negotiations failed.
Forest fires have now broken out across the west. The density of Ponderosa pine forests in Arizona has increased from about 100 trees per acre to more than 1,000 trees per acre, creating a tinder forest that threatens the survival of forested communities such as Payson, Pine, Show Low, and Pinetop, as well as reservoirs and watersheds who support the 4.5 million residents of Maricopa County.
More than 600,000 acres burned in Arizona that year. Last year forest fires claimed nearly a million hectares. The 4FRI process represented the best, large-scale hope to dramatically reduce tree density to nearly 6 million acres.
But the failure of the recent 4FRI negotiations could have a silver lining, said Brad Worsley, director of the Novo Power biomass power plant in Snowflake. The biomass-fired power plant remains key to the thinning efforts in the White Mountains, which have treated approximately 16,000 hectares annually, mostly outside of the 4FRI process.
“Perhaps we can draw on some of the strategies we were trying to implement – and they grew in importance,” said Worsley, who was involved in the RFP negotiations and who would have provided a market for some of the biomass for the last two bidders. “There was no alternative solution when the tender sucked up all available resources.”
He was surprised that after 18 months of discussions on the fundamental question of whether the forest service would at least guarantee the contractors’ investments, the negotiations finally failed if they could not supply enough wood.
“I was down this morning. If you wanted to launch the tender – why not 12 months ago? You were essentially saying that we cannot honor our contract – and we cannot guarantee the capital it will take to build these facilities. I’m not even sure why they started the process. If this material were so valuable, a bidder would come by with no guarantee – someone would have done it by now. “
On the other hand, the failure of the 4FRI negotiations at least opens the door to other solutions.
For example, Novo Power can burn enough wood waste and biomass to support 16,000 hectares of thinning projects annually. The existence of the mill, several small wood sawmills, and a network of companies that can carry out thinning projects have preserved a timber industry in the White Mountains. It also enabled thinning projects that saved Alpine and Springerville from destruction by the Wallow Fire.
Worsley said the state, environmentalists, local logging companies, the Forest Service, Novo Power, and others were talking about how to work together to resolve the problem until the Forest Service’s RFP process essentially ended those conversations by requiring contractors To sign nondisclosure agreements when it came to discuss the deals.
One of these tenders was for the construction of a kindling sawmill. The other involved building an Oriented Strand Board (OSB) facility to manufacture high-tech plywood and composite wood products. These new operations could have used part of the biomass that is now only of value for electricity generation. This could perhaps have increased the treated hectares to around 30,000 – still well below the originally planned 50,000.
Now the focus needs to shift back to local industry, a biomass mandate from the Arizona Corporation Commission, and other solutions. The hopes of Novo Power, Arizona Public Service (APS) and Salt River Project (SRP) will at least renew their contracts to keep Novo Power in business by extending existing contracts for the purchase of electricity from the burning of biomass.
“I think the discussion has to go backwards – back to the future,” said Worsley. “I am satisfied with this scenario. If APS and SRP do not want to renew the contract – Novo Power will certainly end there. But we no longer have the tender – for better or for worse – as a reason for delay. It is time to make the decision. But we certainly won’t do any better than in the past – I’m not sure if this is a win or a loss. “
Jeremy Kruger, executive director of the Four Forest Restoration Initiative at the US Forest Service, promised to keep working to find a way to get 4FRI up and running. “We look forward to working on the critical, large-scale recovery vision of 4FRI and continuing our work to mitigate the threats posed by devastating forest fires. But until the underlying risks for vendors and the government are better addressed, there is no reason to expect an outcome from the current bid process that meets the requirements of the forest service. “
The cancellation is likely to provoke a harsh response from Congress, with millions of acres in flames in the west this year – and in states like California, no end to the Holocaust is in sight.
“The Forest Service’s failure to continue the contract process is slowing restoration work on the 800,000 hectares that would be covered under the contract, endangers forested communities and mistakenly misses an opportunity to create new rural jobs. Extensive restoration work is critical to Arizona, ”said O’Halleran.
This is the first in a series of articles about efforts to reduce the risk of catastrophic forest fires in Rim Country and the White Mountains through forest restoration efforts.