Arizona Restoration Remains Uncertain

Uncertainty continues to surround forest restoration efforts in Arizona: A key second contract for the U.S. Forest Service’s (FS) Four Forests Restoration Initiative (4FRI) has been delayed again; Arizona state election results will affect the state’s renewable energy policy that’s going to be a big part of any forest restoration effort; and while recently introduced legislation could make the 4FRI process easier, the federal government’s final budget proposal seeks to eliminate the Forest Service Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program that funds 4FRI and 22 other stewardship projects across the country and shift its administration elsewhere in the Forest Service that also does restoration work to reduce duplication.

The 4FRI is a highly ambitious project seeking to actively treat more than 2 million acres that are at risk for wildfires across four Arizona national forests. The first 4FRI contract awarded in 2012 to treat 300,000 acres has underperformed, as the state faces major challenges, primarily the lack of timber harvesting, hauling and processing capacity to make such extensive forest work viable.

In September 2020, 4FRI officials again extended the deadline for 4FRI’s expansive Phase 2 contract, already delayed a year, due to a variety of issues, primarily questions and requested changes made by potential bidders. Billed as a precedent-shattering stewardship contract that covers 20 years and provides the huge volumes required to justify a major investment in infrastructure and timber processing capacity, Phase 2 seeks to treat more than 800,000 acres but has suffered several delays in awarding the contract.

An FS spokesman says the plan now is to award the Phase 2 contract in April 2021.

Meanwhile, election results from November show little support for a state mandate requiring utilities to purchase a certain amount of biomass-derived power that would help provide critical markets for the lower quality fiber coming off restoration projects. The Arizona Corporate Commission considers such proposals and voted down a similar mandate 3-2 last year. But once the newly elected commissioners are seated in January, only one commission member is on record supporting a biomass mandate.

Arizona’s only biomass power plant, the 28MW Novopower, can handle enough volume to support roughly 15,000 acres of thinning each year, but more capacity is needed, especially with Phase 2’s projected massive biomass volumes.

Novopower is negotiating new power purchase agreements with Arizona Public Service and the Salt River Project. According to Novopower President Brad Worsley, despite more competitive solar and wind power prices, utility executives understand the importance of forest treatment and he hopes to have power contracts renewed by mid 2021.

There’s also federal legislation introduced and supported by Arizona’s congressional delegation. The “Forest Health and Biomass Energy Act of 2020,” if passed, would set the table for Arizona to expand biomass power generation by, among other things, creating a fund to help subsidize biomass harvesting, collection and transportation, streamlining the FS bureaucracy in terms of identifying and defining sources—and also giving preferential treatment to facilities that have recently converted from coal burning.

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