A massive forest management project in Arizona has been hampered for a decade because there’s not enough of a market for the small trees and brush that must be cleared to reduce fire risk.

But officials and supporters of the project hope that lengthening the time period for the next contract will help speed the project up. At the same time, next year’s federal funding for the project is in question.

The U.S. Forest Service is offering a 20-year contract to help clear small younger trees and debris from areas within the Four Forests Restoration Initiative, also known as 4FRI. It is a 2.4 million-acre project spanning the Kaibab, Coconino, Apache-Sitgreaves, and Tonto National Forests in northern and eastern Arizona. 

4FRI receives funding as part of the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program, or CFLRP, a program authorized under the U.S. Forest Service in 2009. 

The larger Forest Service program comprises 23 projects throughout the country and seeks to reduce fire risk and conserve forests by removing the younger trees and brush that contribute to the potential for fire, while preserving the older larger trees that make the areas attractive for recreation. 

That approach could help return overgrown forests to a more natural state that allows for better fire resiliency and aligns with ecological science, said Amy Waltz, director of science delivery at the Ecological Restoration Institute at Northern Arizona University.

“From a science perspective, the goals are kind of right on par with a restoration of natural processes that will build resiliency and sustainability into our federal lands,” Waltz said. “So, from the get-go we were pretty excited about this.” 

But another aspect of the CFLRP is to rely on the private sector to remove the small-diameter trees and biomass that contribute to fire risk but hold little value. 

“It’s hard to find a market for those small trees, and those are the ones that need to be thinned,” said Scott Garlid, the executive director of the Arizona Wildlife Federation.  

The problem is common across the CFLRP program, but is especially severe for 4FRI because Arizona lacks infrastructure like sawmills, logging trucks and other industry staples, adding to the startup cost a company would have to incur to take part.

As a result, the Arizona project has cleared only 700,000 acres, less than 30% of its total acreage. The Forest Service says “it has treated over 140,000 acres with mechanical harvest and over 860,000 acres with prescribed and managed fire.”

“One area that we need to build on is increasing forest product industry capacity and forest product markets in Arizona,” Forest Service spokesman Scott Claggett said in an email. “For 4FRI to achieve its goal of mechanical thinning of 50,000 acres per year, we will need a lot more sustainable outlets for material coming out of the forests.”

To help, the Forest Service is seeking to award a longer contract for another company to assist in thinning. The agency asked for proposals for a Phase 2 stewardship contract that will last 20 years, double the length of the Phase 1 contract. The Forest Service anticipates awarding Phase 2 contracts by April 2021, spokesman Claggett said. 

A 20-year contract may make companies more willing to spend on startup costs and infrastructure, said John Hamill, secretary of the Arizona Wildlife Federation board of directors.

Supporters of the project have also said government subsidies for the lower-quality wood products would be crucial to jumpstarting the market. The Phase 2 request for proposals, though, says proposals that don’t depend on subsidies will rank higher than those that do.

Congressional delegation complaints about 4FRI

The pace, both of clearing acres under the existing contract and of the awarding of the Phase 2 contract, has frustrated most of Arizona’s congressional delegation.

In a letter last month to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, 10 of the 11 members of the state’s delegation complained that delays in awarding the next round of contracts threatened the entire program. The Phase 2 contract was initially supposed to be awarded in December 2019, they wrote.

“The anemic progress of Phase 1 has already diminished industry capacity in Arizona and the extended delays of Phase 2 threaten to further discourage potential partners,” they wrote.

The one delegation member who didn’t sign the letter, Rep. Raul Grijalva, a Democrat who chairs the House Natural Resources Committee, said through a spokesman the project has shown successes.

“Despite some ongoing challenges for 4FRI, this and other Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program projects have been successful in bringing parties together and demonstrating the potential for large-landscape collaboration in Arizona and around the county,” Grijalva said.

The House has provided $40 million for the CFLRP for the upcoming fiscal year, the same amount the program received for the current year. The Senate has not begun formally considering appropriations bills for fiscal 2021 and the government is operating under a stopgap spending bill until Dec. 11.

In his annual budget request, President Donald Trump asked Congress to eliminate the program. The White House said the move would “reduce duplication among Federal programs, as other Forest Service programs also do restoration work on National Forest System lands.”

It’s not clear 4FRI would be part of the next round of CFLRP funding in the next 10-year tranche of funding. 

An advisory committee that reports to the Forest Service did not recommend extending funding for Four Forests, though Perdue will make the final decision on approving projects and is not bound by the committee’s recommendation. 

CFLRP projects, including 4FRI, are not dependent on any one stream of funding. The dedicated federal CFLRP fund accounted for about 18% of all spending on the projects during the first 10 years of the program, according to a Forest Service report. Other funding sources include general Forest Service appropriations and matches from local and private-sector partners.

Joe Miller, a volunteer with Trout Unlimited and a member of the Four Forests stakeholder council, said more frequent and intense wildfires throughout the West have led to greater competition for money through the program.

“That’s become a much more competitive world,” he said. “With a lot of other parts of the country making efforts at upgraded and intensified forest management activities in the face of a warming climate, declining precipitations and hotter, drier periods.”

***UPDATE: An earlier version of this report misstated who would make the final funding decision on Four Forests projects. It is Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue.