Forest Thinning

Logging operations on the Mogollon Rim.

PAYSON -- The Forest Service has made two key changes in the offered contracts to thin nearly a million acres of forest in the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) area that includes much of north central Arizona.

The changes would make it clear any bidders would get a full, 20-year contract and better define how much biomass in the form of branches, saplings and down and dead wood the contracts will have to remove.

The 4FRI will therefore postpone until March 3 the deadline for bids — and hopes to award the first round of contracts before the end of the year, according to Acting Regional Forester Elaine Kohrman.

The Forest Service received more than 100 technical questions from dozens of potential bidders when it issued its request for proposals from bidders seeking 20-year contracts to thin some of the nearly 1 million acres in four forests included in the request for proposals. This represents the second phase of the 2.4 million 4FRI project, although most of the projects in the initial 300,000 bid award remain uncut.

The bid packages indicated that in addition to the marketable trees, contractors must remove at least 50% of the “slash” or “biomass.” The more biomass a contractor can remove, the higher the rating for his bid.

The original language suggested the contractor would get a 20-year contract, but would have to pass the hurdle of review periods every four years.

Many of the questions from contractors centered on those two conditions.

So the amended language clarifies that the contractor will have a two- or three-year ramp-up period to develop the sawmills, biomass burning plants or other wood-processing operations needed.

“There’s going to be a demonstrated commitment” due to the investment made during the ramp-up period, said Kohrman.

Overall, 4FRI envisions thinning some 50,000 acres annually. However, in the roughly eight years in the first phase of the landmark project, the succession of contractors awarded the bid thinned only about 15,000 acres. The 4FRI approach remains virtually the only viable approach underway to avoid an Australia-style catastrophe in a forest where tree densities have increased from perhaps 50 per acre to more like 1,000 per acre.

The amendments also clarify how contractors should calculate how much slash or biomass they’ll have to remove. Generally, the slash includes branches lopped off the trees cut, tiny trees and other material not used. Some estimates suggest that the slash represents half of the material in need of removal — and may average 50 tons per acre across much of the forest.

“A lot of the questions that came in concerned terminology that wasn’t consistent, including different definitions of words like ‘slash’ and ‘biomass.’ So what we’ve done now is worked to make that clear — how do you confirm and calculate. It’s actually been quite an effort to do that,” said Kohrman.

In the past, loggers have often piled up that slash and left it behind for later burning. However, that leaves masses of dried out material on the forest floor — dramatically increasing the damage by wildfires.

Unfortunately, there’s not much market for this mass of woody material. NovoPower operates a 28-megawatt biomass burning plant near Snowflake, which has sustained thinning efforts in the White Mountains for the last decade. However, NovoPower could lose its long-term contracts with Arizona Public Service and Salt River Project in a few years. That means the bidders can’t be sure a market for the biomass they must remove will exist by the time they start large-scale work.

SRP Director of Water Supply Bruce Hallin is one expert working with the Forest Service on the request for proposals.

He said SRP will wait to see what proposals come in for handling the biomass in March. He did not rule out continuing a long-term contract with NovoPower or even converting a unit of the coal-fired Coronado Generating Plant to biomass, if that’s what it takes to make the 4FRI thinning approach viable.

The Arizona Corporation Commission has also said it might revisit issuing a requirement utilities generate a certain amount of energy from biomass, depending on the results of the proposals. Three seats on the corporation commission are up this year, which could also change the lineup on the commission.

Hallin said, “SRP is encouraged” by the interest in the request for proposals. “We’re looking forward to helping review the industry proposals” as part of the RFP partnership.

Kohrman said “we do agree that biomass continues to be our most significant challenge. We’re looking for proposals that are sustainable and cost-effective.”

“We’re all supportive of industry describing how they best plan to deal with the biomass issue,” said Hallin.

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