Forest Service to speak on Arizona thinning project

FLAGSTAFF, AZ - The U.S. Forest Service has planned an announcement Friday on the contract for a massive project aimed at restoring areas along the Mogollon Rim to a natural fire regime, reducing wildfire threats and creating forest industries.

Pioneer Forest Products was selected in 2012 to thin 300,000 acres in four Arizona forests over 10 years. But the Montana-based company has had trouble with financing and talked to the Forest Service earlier this year about transferring its contract. Pioneer's plan to build a plant near Winslow to convert the timber into things like laminate wood panels hasn't come to fruition.

The Forest Service said it could transfer the contract if that is in the best interest of the government. A spokeswoman for the Four Forest Restoration Initiative didn't return messages Thursday, and a spokesman for Pioneer declined to discuss details ahead of the Friday afternoon announcement.

The Forest Service has acknowledged the project is behind schedule because of a lack of manufacturing capacity. The original proposal called for 10,000 acres to be covered in fiscal year 2012. So far, only one task order for about 1,000 acres in the Apache Sitgreaves National Forest has been issued. The Forest Service said it expects to be on schedule after fiscal year 2014.

The stewardship contract that the Forest Service has called the largest is its history was expected to create 500 jobs. Conservationists, scientists, timber industry representatives, and local and forest officials worked together to shape the project.

Navajo County Supervisor David Tenney has touted the benefits of the project but criticized Pioneer's selection as the contractor. He said the task only becomes more and more daunting as time wears on.

"There's got to be some urgency on the part of the Forest Service," he said. "They need to issue these task orders to Pioneer or their successor, and they need to perform, or get a contractor in here who can."

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