By Linda Kor –
The U.S. Forest Service announced Friday the long-awaited outcome of a contract award for the thinning of 300,000 acres of Ponderosa pine, and Governor Jan Brewer declared it was “a red letter day for Arizona.”
The announcement of Pioneer Forest Products as the recipient of the contract means a forward motion for the initiative aimed at the restoration of forest ecosystems on portions of the Coconino, Kaibab, Apache-Sitgreaves and Tonto national forests. It also means good news for Winslow and the surrounding city as the company plans to convert small diameter timber thinnings into non-commodity, high value lumber, panels, fur-niture, cabinetry, specialty components and energy producing products in Winslow.
The announcement was made at a news conference in Flagstaff that included not only the governor and rep-resentatives of the U.S. Forest Service, but also stakeholders in the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI), and local government officials from Flagstaff and Winslow.
“As fires such as the Gladiator and Sunflower fires currently burn in the state we realize these are dangerous times. I applaud this historic progress started by 4FRI six years ago. This is the largest contract awarded by the U.S. Forest Service in the lower 48 states for the past 30 years. I hope this is the start of many initiatives that are critical to our communities,” stated Brewer.
Representatives of Pioneer Associates were not present when the announcement was made, but later pro-vided a statement expressing their gratitude for the contract and noting that they were committed to carrying out this project to its maximum capability in order to contribute to the economic vitality of Northern Arizona com-munities.
The first phase of the contract will open an initial 750,000-acre swath of the Kaibab and Coconino forests to industries that will harvest the smaller diameter trees responsible for cluttering the four forests. It is believed these small diameter trees are the primary cause of the devastation of the Wallow and Rodeo-Chediski fires that have cost tens of millions of dollars to fight.
The 4FRI stakeholders group, which is a collaborative effort of government, private and special interest groups, will be monitoring the thinning as the process takes place, and will address issues such as improving habitats, and surface and ground water to insure the restoration of the forests to a healthy, balanced ecosystem.
According to the Forest Service, as the process begins, priority will be given to areas of wildland-urban in-terface, which is the transition area between unoccupied land and human development, then critical watershed areas and other areas of biodiversity.
Following the announcement, questions regarding truck activity along the main roads were addressed by Dick Fleishman of the Forest Service and a 4FRI assistant team leader. “We estimate one truck per acre, or roughly 30,000 truckloads 200 days of the year.” When the statement brought numerous questions of concern regarding traffic and road conditions, Forest Service Southwest Regional Forester Corbin Newman interjected, “We realize that the socio-economic impact is important. We will be coordinating with the counties to ensure we’re all on board together.”
Another concern regarding the impact of logging trucks on tourism travel was addressed as Newman stated, “At one time not so long ago logging was here and people will have to adjust once again. The forests attract people because they’re green and healthy. I think this will boost tourism, not harm it.”
Diane Vosick, director of Policy and Partnerships for the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Ari-zona University, added that wildfires mean a loss of revenues in tourism, with impacts that lasts for years. “This is a preventive measure,” she said.
Because of the centralized location to the four forests that will be treated in the 4FRI contract, Pioneer For-est Products has selected Winslow as the site for its facility. The location was also selected due to its access to a significant shipping corridor with Interstate 40 for over the road trucks, and the extensive rail network of the Burlington Northern Santa Fe (BNSF).
In their statement, Pioneer Forest Products officials noted that they expect logging to begin within six months when permits are completed and construction of the mill begins. While most training is expected to take place on the job, local colleges such as Northland Pioneer College, Coconino College and Northern Arizona University will be providing additional training to ensure field operations are safe and productive, while being careful to leave the land in the best condition possible. The company intends to give priority to the contractors from the region first in terms of carrying out field operations, including road maintenance, logging and hauling of the material. Pioneer also intends to work closely with local mills in order to avoid having a shortage of logs for their operations. The company anticipates that since its planned mill is designed for smaller logs, a supply of other logs will be available to various other mills.
While the company is already in contact with several loggers from the Arizona area, the large scope of this contract brings the need to expand greatly by bringing in additional equipment; this, too, will provide increased logging and hauling jobs above and beyond just putting past employees back to work.
The company, which includes multiple subsidiaries and markets in the U.S. and Canada, intends to establish one of the largest totally self-sustained wood manufacturing plants in the United States, with the ability to cover a market area of the U.S., Canada and Asia. The company claims a vast background in development of indus-trial and health care enterprises over the last 50 years, including Trimline Manufacturing at Dickinson, N.D., which manufactures institutional case-goods and employs 400 to 500 people.
According to the company, once the 4FRI contract is signed, Pioneer will finalize the engineering and se-cure the needed permits for the construction of the sawmill.
Regarding the number of jobs anticipated as a result of this contract, Vosick presented figures from an analysis report compiled by the NAU Ecological Restoration Institute showing that for the thinning alone prior to the award of contract, an estimated 300 new full-time employees will be needed. With the announcement of Pioneer Forest Products as the recipient of the contract, it is estimated that during the construction phase of the mill an estimated 250 full-time employees would be needed for the sawmill and finger-jointing operation, and the biomass conversion plant; which is expected to last over a year. In the manufacturing facility, where edge-glued panels, doors, door jambs, cupboard doors and furniture parts will be built, an estimated 245 employees would be needed. Biomass removal and processing would mean an additional 57 jobs for a total of approxi-mately 462 permanent, full-time jobs.