The U.S. Forest Service has selected its contractor for the largest stewardship contract in the agency’s history. Pioneer Forest Products was selected as the contractor to perform treatments on the Apache-Sitgreaves, Coconino, Kaibab and Tonto national forests in Arizona.

 A Forest Service news release said the contract will result in 300,000 acres of restoration-based thinning over 10 years. It will also improve forest health by reducing the risk from wildfire to communities, creating jobs and improving local economies.

 The contract represents the culmination of many years of collaborative work between the Forest Service and more than 30 organizations, the USFS spokesman said. It is the first large step of the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, known as the  4FRI, which is a 20-year plan to restore 2.4 million acres of ponderosa pine forest in northern Arizona.

 Work under the contract is expected to create more than 500 jobs, performing on-the-ground treatments and hauling and processing wood removed from Arizona forests. That includes the Apache National Forest in northern Greenlee County. The Apache covers about two-thirds of Greenlee.

 Greenlee County Board of Supervisors Chairman Richard Lunt, who represents Greenlee on the 4FRI, said, “I’m very happy about this. It’s long overdue. We’ve got to make it work, not only for Arizona, but for the rest of America.”

 He said, “A big plus to this is that instead of digging into the public treasury, industry will be paying the bill while reaping the benefits and creating jobs.

 “Renewable natural resources like we have in our forests need to be harvested and at the same time well-managed.”  

 The 4FRI is probably the closest thing to logging that most, if not all, Arizona forests will ever see again.  

 The lumber industry was active in the Apache and neighboring Sitgreaves forest until the 1980s when the Endangered Species Act, signed into law by President Richard Nixon in the 1970s,  killed lumber-harvesting. The forests were determined as being habitat for the endangered Mexican spotted owl.

 Rulings by federal courts supporting the ESA spotted owl claim resulted in the end of logging in the Apache-Sitgreaves. The many appeals filed with the courts have been unsuccessful. The end of logging also had a major negative economic impact on Greenlee, which had  been receiving timber-harvesting revenues.

 The timber industry’s demise was a double whammy for the county. At the same time logging was being shut down, state legislative action lowering the assessed valuation of mines, railroads and utilities meant a major drop in county revenues. Greenlee is home to the giant Morenci open pit copper mine.

 There remain many critics of the logging ban. They attribute the lack of logging as a major contributor to wildfire, such as last year’s Wallow fire. The Wallow, Arizona’s largest-ever wildfire, began in northern Greenlee. It ran from May 29 to June 8 and burned more than a half-million acres. The fire’s size has been attributed by some to forest overgrowth, resulting in the accumulation of fuel for wildfires.

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 The 4FRI is endorsed by the Forest Service, conservationists, scientists, local governments and industry leaders. The Greenlee County Board of Supervisors has long supported the 4FRI plan.

 “The importance of this contract cannot be overstated,” said Arthur “Butch” Blazer, USDA deputy under secretary for natural resources and environment. He said the 4FRI will boost the agency’s vision for increasing the size and pace of restoration and will make a difference not only on the landscape, but also to people and communities across Arizona.

 Pioneer plans to build a plant near Winslow, at which ponderosa pine timber will be converted into non commodity, high-value lumber, laminate wood panels, door and door frame, window frames, furniture, cabinetry and specialty components.

 The USFS spokesman said Pioneer was selected, in part, because it is an appropriately scaled, community-based industry capable of removing small-diameter trees to help offset forest restoration treatment costs.

 Treatments under the contract and other ongoing efforts in Arizona’s national forests are expected to produce a large enough wood supply to support existing industries in the White Mountains and build new industries supported by Pioneer Forest Products, the spokesman said.

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