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For Immediate Release, August 12, 2013

Contact: Todd Schulke, (575) 574-5962

Forest Service Again Jeopardizing Major Forest Restoration Project in Arizona

Call Renewed for Transparency, Investigation Into Federal Forest Project

SILVER CITY, N.M. The U.S. Forest Service is again jeopardizing a major forest restoration project that would thin 300,000 acres of northern Arizona’s national forests.

The agency previously went against the consensus reached by environmentalists, scientists, local governments and industry by allowing large trees to be cut in the Four Forests Restoration Initiative (4FRI), and by awarding the thinning contract to Pioneer Forest Products, a company partially run by Marlin Johnson, a former senior Forest Service employee who promoted the logging of large trees. Pioneer had little experience, a dubious business plan and no financing. The company eventually failed to carry out the contract.

Now the Forest Service is poised to transfer the contract to a new company that may also be run by Marlin Johnson. The Forest Service has refused to divulge the name the company, explain its business plan or submit the contracting process to public review. The Center for Biological Diversity is very concerned by a report from Johnson on a recent 4FRI field trip that the new company intends to follow the same flawed business plan as Pioneer.

“It’s a pipe dream to claim wood products from low-value pine forests can compete with Asian and South American companies with access to cheap materials and even cheaper labor,” said Todd Schulke with the Center for Biological Diversity, one of the stakeholder groups in the 4FRI process. “It’s no surprise that Pioneer failed to raise funds, given its plan’s lack of economic sense. Any company relying on a similar pie-in-the-sky plan is likely to meet the same reception as Pioneer.”

Pioneer and the new, undisclosed company are also placing high hopes on turning small-diameter trees into jet fuel through a partnership with Concord Blue.

“Concord Blue has never built a commercially viable plant like the one proposed for 4FRI that would convert low-energy woody biomass into jet fuel,” said Schulke. “While there are experimental attempts to convert woody biomass into biodiesel or jet fuel, none have proven to be economically viable.”

Johnson, a partner in Pioneer Forest Products, was revealed by former Pioneer executive Herman Hauck as being “employed by the company that supposedly is taking over.” When Johnson worked for the southwest region of the Forest Service, he repeatedly pressed for the continued logging of large, old trees. The Forest Service decision to drop the 4FRI stakeholders’ collaborative plan to protect large trees, thereby ignoring the social consensus of the stakeholder group, is another red flag.

The Center is also raising several additional questions, given the weakness of the Pioneer business plan and speculation that Pioneer stands to walk away with millions of dollars for doing nothing but delaying fire-protection work in Arizona. Among the questions:

• Did Pioneer mislead the Forest Service in its application for the contract? Was it always the company’s intention simply to flip the contract?
• Did the Forest Service overlook key red flags by accident? How else could the well-predicted failure of Pioneer have been overlooked?

While the Center has called for an open and transparent process, former Pioneer owner Hauck told the Arizona Republic: “I appreciate your interest, but let’s not get into a world here that’s going to create a whole lot of problems. We’ve got enough problems without the public getting involved.”

“There’s a clear need for a transparent process to ensure that the same mistakes aren’t made again, particularly since 4FRI is the largest project of the Obama administration’s flagship forest restoration program,” Schulke said. “We can’t afford any more mistakes, and the communities of northern Arizona can’t withstand more failure. The evaluation process must be done by a credible, independent third party that can perform a thorough review of the viability of the business plan. The administration owes the public and 4FRI stakeholders answers. And we will hold its feet to the fire until we get those answers.”

The Center today also renewed its call for an investigation by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s inspector general.

“The public deserves a thorough investigation of the contracting fiasco to determine if there was any wrongdoing. Pioneer certainly doesn’t deserve to walk away with millions while Arizona’s communities bear the cost of increased risk of dangerous fires,” said Schulke.

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