The Center for Biological Diversity today called on the inspector general of the Department of Agriculture to investigate potential irregularities in how the contract is being carried out for the Obama administration’s most ambitious forest restoration project. The U.S. Forest Service on Friday announced that it was considering transferring the contract to conduct thinning on almost 1 million acres in northern Arizona due to failure of the current contractor, Pioneer Forest Products, to perform.
“Many of us saw this one coming right from the start. Pioneer’s business plan read like a fantasy novel,” said Todd Schulke with the Center, a stakeholder group. “But the Forest Service chose Pioneer despite having more realistic options. Either Pioneer misled the agency about its financial viability or the Forest Service chose to look the other way when there were serious questions. Why?”
On May 18, 2012, the Forest Service awarded the Four Forests Restoration Initiative (4FRI) contract to Pioneer Forest Products to thin 30,000 acres per year over 10 years in unnaturally dense, fire-prone forests in southwestern Arizona and to construct a wood-processing plant that could use the small trees and brush while paying for the work in woods.
Many of the stakeholders of the 4FRI collaborative had predicted that Pioneer would fail because the company’s business plan was based on unproven technology and sought to compete in highly competitive foreign markets. It has now been more than a year since the contract was awarded, and in that time Pioneer has yet to obtain financing for its mill; to date it has hired 12 loggers to thin just 1,000 acres. On Friday the Forest Service announced that Pioneer is attempting to sell the contract to a new, undisclosed entity.
“It came as a great surprise to us that the Forest Service picked Pioneer over Arizona Forest Restoration Products in the first place, which had reliable financing lined up and a sound track record of running projects like 4FRI,” said Schulke.
In another highly suspect move, the Forest Service abandoned an agreement that the stakeholders had reached on protecting large trees. “Ignoring the collaborative agreement was an outright breach of the social license that enabled 4FRI in the first place,” said Schulke. “Large trees are not only critically important to the survival of an array of endangered and threatened species, they’re also more fire-resistant — they help to reduce the risk of catastrophic fires.”
Immediately following the contract award last year, the Center for Biological Diversity issued a press statement pointing out that “…the evidence overwhelmingly suggests that the Forest Service did not adequately consider required selection criteria relating to (1) cost, (2) technology reliability, (3) economic or market viability, (4) the ability to conduct ecological and endangered species monitoring, or (5) collaboration and a commitment to maintaining a social license.”
The Center also expressed great concern about a former Forest Service employee who works for Pioneer and might lead the project if the Forest Service transfers the contract. When the official worked for the Southwest Region of the Forest Service, he was a lead proponent for logging large, old trees. High-grading the Southwest’s ponderosa pine forests, as well as grazing and fire suppression, have led to uncharacteristic, dangerous fuel loads.
“You can call it a coincidence, but when you add the pieces up, it just doesn’t look right,” said Schulke. “That’s why we’re calling for an investigation by the inspector general. We fully support 4FRI and have been working in collaboration with the counties, other conservation organizations, and the industry for years on this. It’s important work that must get done. But Forest Service bungling has put communities at risk from fire unnecessarily. It’s time to demand action.”
The Center has brought these issues up to the Forest Service and Department of Agriculture previously, but has received no substantive response.