Located in north central Arizona, the newest greenfield sawmill in the U.S. (see page 6) is taking shape, representing the culmination of a decade-long effort by public and private groups and also an unprecedented move by the U.S. Forest Service (FS) to make a major positive impact on critical forest health issues.
As part of the Four Forests Restoration Initiative (4FRI)—a huge project to ultimately perform thinning and other fuel-reduction activities on more than 2.4 million acres in four national forests—the FS has awarded the largest-ever stewardship contract for improving forest health to Pioneer Associates of Billings, Mont., which is building the mill and related facilities to process small logs and biomass material coming off an eye-popping 300,000 acres during the 10-year life of the agreement. Overstocked timber stands in the Cococino, Kaibab, Apache-Sitgreaves and Tonto national forests will contribute.
The Pioneer project will produce primarily door and window components and other high-end pine niche products with an innovative sawmill and edge gluing and fingerjointing technology. In addition, Pioneer’s contract proposal includes a biomass utilization facility to handle tons of unmerchantable and non-log material and process it into biodiesel or some other biofuel. Pioneer is currently in discussion with two different companies to partner in the biomass project.
A measure of controversy arose after Pioneer won the contract: A firm with local investors had waged a high-profile campaign to win the contract with a proposal to build an OSB plant to utilize the forest thinning material, and many close to the process thought the OSB project had an inside track. But the controversy is fading fast as the project begins to ramp up, with long-awaited woods work set to begin.
Across the U.S. West, there are forests stressed by overstocked timber stands, exacerbated by ongoing drought and pest infestations that create tinderbox fire conditions and contribute to major wildfires. Depending on how the land is inventoried, there are up to tens of millions of acres in dire need of thinning and understory removal. Of course, the FS has no money to undertake such a huge effort, and traditional sale-by-sale programs make barely a dent in overall forest health.
Such a situation requires out-of-the-box thinking, and when faced with such large acreages needing work, the project had to “go big,” says 4FRI team leader Henry Provencio of the FS.
The potential significance of the 4FRI-Pioneer stewardship project—aside from its sheer size—is whether the almost decade-long process can be used as a template for other regions such as beetle-killed pine forests in Colorado or overstocked stands in central Oregon. The key difference in Arizona is the longevity and certainty of the contract, which gives industry a reason to make the investment in processing capacity that makes the overall forest health project doable.
Of course, this requires unprecedented cooperation between longtime adversarial interests of environmental and industry groups. Industry must develop innovative approaches to handling small logs and huge amounts of biomass; environmental groups must realize the need for some logging to bring forests back to health.
It’s a long way to the end of Pioneer Associates’ 10-year stewardship contract. Here’s to hoping the project can run its course without hitting too many obstacles and serve as a map to real success in improving public land forest health.