Can Wood Bioenergy

Save Arizona?

The saga of Arizona’s forest restoration and fire prevention processes under the federal 4 Forests Restoration Initiative (4FRI) continues, as the company in charge of a large 300,000 acre forest stewardship and restoration contract now has new ownership.

NewLife Forest Products, itself a rejuvenated organization that took over from Good Earth Power, which actually was the second company to acquire the 4FRI Phase I stewardship contract covering 300,000 acres after the original holder of the contract, Pioneer Forest Products of Montana, wasn’t able to gain financing for its plan to build a pine cutting mill, small log sawmill and biofuel plant, now has new investors and ownership structure.

Tom Loushin, owner of A1 Timber out of Chehalis, Wash., is heading up a team that purchased NewLife Forest Products and the contract that goes with it. Forgive us if the news gives us a “Here we go again” feeling when it comes to the Phase I contract, now on its third or fourth operator since 2012, depending on how you count it.

Started as a response to the devastating fires that hit Arizona soon after the turn of the century, the 4FRI has sought to bring once opposed organizations to the table to develop solutions to forest health and fire prevention in the state. The group has brought stakeholders from across the state together and is seeking innovative ways to address forest health issues in Arizona.

Biomass Resource Image 001
From Left: Jessica Johnson, Associate Editor; Dan Shell, Managing Editor; Jay Donnell, Associate Editor; Rich Donnell, Editor-in-Chief; David (DK) Knight, Co-Publisher/Executive Editor; David Abbott, Senior Associate Editor

Unlike other efforts that have concentrated on individual watersheds or tracts, 4FRI has taken an unprecedented regional scope, seeking to address forest health across four national forests covering 2.4 million acres. The Phase I contract was the first of several, each covering hundreds of thousands of acres.

It’s ironic that an effort such as the 4FRI that has attracted key environmental groups to support the overall project and most individual projects is primarily hamstrung by a lack of timber and fiber markets that have slowed progress on the ground to a crawl.

Indeed, instead of treating 300,000 acres between 2012 and 2022, the Phase I 10-year contract has seen less than 20,000 acres treated in seven years.

Sawlogs have a way of selling themselves, but it’s the sheer volume of biomass that’s overwhelming efforts to build the infrastructure to utilize it. In this case, wood bioenergy is the answer, and two recent and related developments may make it even better.

First, the Arizona Corporation Commission recently passed a sustainable energy provision requiring utilities to get a certain percentage of power from biomass sources. Details are still being worked out, but it’s a great step in the right direction.

Second—and this is definitely counterintuitive, considering the performance of Phase I—there’s another, bigger contract out there, Phase II. It covers 500,000 acres and was supposed to have been released last year but has been delayed. Some say the group should expedite release of the Phase II contract in order to attract the financing for infrastructure development.

Combined, the biomasss energy provision and a new, larger contract may provide the certainty and volume for a major wood bioenergy expansion in the state, which is sorely needed to efficiently execute the contracts and make a dent in forest treatment backlogs. The state’s only major biomass consumer, Novo Power, is producing 28 MW, and reports say the volume available through 4FRI can easily support twice as much power capacity.

Here’s to the efforts of A1 Timber, the new NewLife Forest Products and the folks working with 4FRI. The forests, the industry and all of Arizona need 4FRI to be a success.