Story by Rich Donnell,
We had our doubts, and it seems everybody else did as well. Back in May 2012, the U.S. Forest Service selected a company nobody had ever heard of, Pioneer Forest Products, to perform restoration thinning on 300,000 acres over 10 years on the Coconino, Kaibab, Apache-Sitgreaves and Tonto national forests in northern Arizona. This endeavor was part of the Four Forests Restoration Initiative (4FRI), which would ultimately thin more than 2.4 million acres on those overstocked forests.
Apparently one reason the agency chose Pioneer Forest Products was because Pioneer proposed a plan to build a $250 million forest products sawmill and remanufacturing complex at Winslow, Ariz. for converting the ponderosa pine thinnings into lumber that would be fingerjointed, edge-glued and otherwise engineered into door components, window frames and furniture pieces. Pioneer also said it would be using some of the slash waste to feed a new biofuels facility it would build there.
Pioneer won the thinning award with a $6.3 million bid, which seemed a bit unusual because another company, Arizona Forest Restoration Products, had offered $15 million and said it intended to build an oriented strandboard plant. Pioneer apparently won because its wood products operation was not expected to be so commodity-driven, and the biofuels plant sounded pretty sexy as well. We were a little concerned about the accusations going around that something akin to insider trading had gone on, but we hoped this was simply chatroom banter.
Still we had our doubts about Pioneer because, one, the people behind Pioneer didn’t seem to have a lot of modern sawmill savvy and, two, to just toss out there that a biofuels plant would be built was a bit bold, considering the U.S. is still waiting on its first wood-based biofuels plant to perform at a high production commercial level (following multiple million dollars of investment and multiple years of R&D); and, three, we never got the sense that Pioneer had the financial wherewithal. However, we didn’t rule out the possibility of it happening, especially when Pioneer approached Adco-Designs about designing the sawmill operation, because we knew that the people behind Adco-Designs did have lots of sawmill experience.
Two developments have popped up most recently. The original principal behind Pioneer is apparently no longer involved. And it’s reported that Pioneer wants to transfer its thinning contract to another company. One rumor says this company is led by a former Pioneer partner. Another rumor says this company is foreign-based. The Forest Service says the contract can be transferred, and the agency is taking a close look at the situation. You bet they are, considering they could have gained $15 million, but settled on $6 million, and that’s up in the air.
We do know that there are established wood products companies that could have had a sawmill up and running by now, or even three to four satellite sawmills, as well as remanufacturing lines, already feeding ponderosa pine lumber and components into the marketplace during a period of some vibrancy in the home building and remodeling industries and the general economy.
An agency that once did its best to decimate the Western sawmill industry could sure use a few sawmillers to rescue it now.