Lost in the Woods

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This article by Claudine LoMonaco first appeared in the September 01, 2014 issue of High Country News.

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Lost in the woods

How the Forest Service is botching its biggest restoration project.

Jason Rosamond appears to have a grand vision. The way he frames it, his company’s project in northern Arizona will merely begin by saving the area’s sprawling ponderosa pine forest from a century of mismanagement and record-breaking wildfires. Then it will eradicate a leading cause of poverty on a troubled continent 10,000 miles away.

“Our intention,” he told an eager audience packed into a conference room in the Navajo Nation’s Twin Arrows Casino near Flagstaff last October, “is to solve the energy crisis in Africa.”

Dozens of environmentalists, local politicians, small-business owners, scientists and bureaucrats listened closely, with a mix of skepticism and hope. They were local stakeholders who had helped create the project that Rosamond was now linking to Africa: the largest, most ambitious forest restoration ever attempted in the U.S., targeting a dangerously overgrown swath of four national forests — a total of 2.4 million acres — stretching from the Grand Canyon to the New Mexico border. Their Four Forest Restoration Initiative, or 4FRI (pronounced “four-fry”), aims to remove half the trees in much of the area, while establishing an ecologically sustainable timber industry, processing small-diameter trees at no cost to the government — the dream of many Western forest restoration projects.

It’s a daunting task, though, and 4FRI was already behind schedule and in danger of collapse. The first company the U.S. Forest Service — the lead agency — picked for the contract had failed to find investors. The appearance of Rosamond, who lives in London, signaled that global companies were stepping in. Good Earth Power, based in the Sultanate of Oman, on the Persian Gulf, was taking over the 4FRI contract with the financial backing of its parent company, a conglomerate called the Zawawi Group, which has ties to Oman’s ruling family.

With a slick slide show and an earnest manner, Rosamond explained why a development company that works mostly in Africa is interested in Arizona forestry. Good Earth Power’s mission, he said, is to protect the environment and empower communities through sustainable — and profitable — energy solutions, ranging from a million-unit green housing development in Nigeria to high-tech greenhouses in Botswana that are a hundred times more productive than commercial farming. The company has a proven technology to transform bio-waste, like tree branches, into a synthetic gas, he added, and the Arizona project will take it one step further, turning the syngas into commercially viable biodiesel. Good Earth Power would then disseminate this technology in Africa, where reliable energy can be hard, or impossible, to get.

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Comments about this article

Kyle Klain Subscriber
Sep 01, 2014 08:13 PM
Brutal. If there was any doubt left that the NFS is in a poor way and needs a revamp, this seals it. I just wish it didn't come at the cost of the beautiful forest in Arizona...
Craig Bowman Subscriber
Sep 10, 2014 10:20 AM
This dysfunctional government & it's minions are a disgrace ! They are simply incapable of doing anything in a timely, intelligent order. Try to remember this on election day.

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