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.

Rosamond, in his mid-40s with bright blue eyes, made yet more promises: Good Earth Power would give away 50 percent of its 4FRI profits to support community development, such as scholarships and small businesses, throughout northern Arizona, as it does in Africa. It would get right to work, and expected to turn a profit in less than three months. In other presentations in small Arizona towns, Rosamond also pledged to provide local loggers with the financial assistance and new equipment they would need to restore the pine belt.

A skidder helps thin Arizona’s overgrown pine belt, in the Mountainaire Project in Coconino National Forest. 4FRI
It was an impressive presentation, essentially backed by the Forest Service, which had found Rosamond’s company “financially and technically” capable of completing the project. Maybe 4FRI would finally get into gear, charting a course for other large-scale attempts to treat mismanaged public forests.

But a closer look fuels serious questions. Some of Rosamond’s key claims appear to be unsupported, and the company has declined requests for additional information or interviews. On the ground in Arizona today, nearly a year after Good Earth Power took over the contract, 4FRI is even further behind schedule and still in danger of unraveling. And the blame for the delays, uncertainty and outright failures seems to lie squarely with the Forest Service.

The Forest Service leadership on 4FRI, in fact, has been deeply dysfunctional and ineffective. It reveals a stubborn refusal to surrender power to stakeholders outside the agency, and a lack of business acumen in dealing with contractors. Apparently, crucial decisions were driven at least partly by historical vendettas, personal grudges and political connections. The dysfunction seems to extend up to the highest levels of the Forest Service and its parent, the Department of Agriculture, in Washington, D.C. They have backed the project, recognizing the urgent need to prevent catastrophic wildfires, but have failed to hold middle managers accountable.

“There are a lot of good people in the Forest Service who are appalled and embarrassed by what happened and hope somebody takes the fall for it,” says Paul Hirt, a historian at Arizona State University and author of A Conspiracy of Optimism: A history of the Forest Service. “Somebody in a leadership position in the regional office made a really stupid decision.”

Psychological warfare
Ironically, when I began reporting on 4FRI in 2010, it was a feel-good story. I was living in Flagstaff, in the ponderosa pine belt, and I had walked through the thickets of spindly trees choking the national forests. It was a far cry from the early settlers’ descriptions of open prairies punctuated by enormous ponderosas. So I hiked to Powell Plateau, a remote mesa on Grand Canyon National Park’s North Rim, one of the few places in Arizona never commercially logged. There, I saw towering pines — affectionately known as “yellow bellies” for the color of the fire-resistant bark they develop as they age — growing amid sunlit meadows covered with native grasses and wildflowers. It was a living reminder of what we once had, and could regain, if 4FRI successfully repairs more than a century of damage.

The logging industry took hold of Arizona’s pine belt as far back as the 1880s, toppling giant trees up to 600 years old to make ties for the transcontinental railroad and lumber for distant markets. The railroad also made it easy for ranchers to move livestock, and the grazing decimated the native grasses that fueled the low-intensity fires that had kept the forest healthy by naturally thinning the smaller trees. The Forest Service compounded the problem when, in 1910, it began stamping out all fires to protect both industries.

The loggers continued to cull the large, economically valuable pines year after year up to the 1990s, even though the old growth formed the ecosystem’s backbone. In their place, unprecedented numbers of small trees sprang up, forming a tightly packed forest that, like matchsticks, ignited in a series of high-intensity mega fires. In 2002, the Rodeo-Chediski Fire burned more than 400 homes and 468,000 acres  — nearly 10 times as much as all the fires in the pine belt during the preceding two decades. Then the Wallow Fire of 2011 burned more than 500,000 acres — the largest fire in Arizona’s recorded history. The monster fires burn so hot, they kill even the largest trees and can destroy entire ecosystems. Less than 3 percent of the pine belt is now old growth, according to environmentalists interpreting Forest Service data. Throw in the ongoing drought and increasing temperatures linked to climate change, and Arizona’s national forests are arguably in the worst shape of any in the country.

A forester is dwarfed by a pile of small-diameter logs cut on the Coconino National Forest as part of the Four Forest Restoration Initiative. 4FRI/USDA FOREST SERVICE

A confrontational environmental group led the rising chorus of public concern. Since its founding in 1989, the Center for Biological Diversity has wielded lawsuits and other legal weapons against the Forest Service, even conducting what its president, Kierán Suckling, termed “psychological warfare” — aimed at wearing down the agency’s traditional timber managers. In 1995, the group won a federal injunction that halted logging on all 11 national forests in Arizona and New Mexico on behalf of the threatened Mexican spotted owl and other species that depend on old-growth pines. It was a fatal blow to the area’s logging industry. By the late ’90s, the loggers and most sawmills had shut down.

The Forest Service’s Southwest Region headquarters in Albuquerque bore the brunt of the center’s psychological warfare. To some degree, the Southwest Region had long been an agency backwater, with less prestige than the Pacific Northwest or Northern Rockies regions, which produce most of the West’s timber and groom managers to ascend to the national headquarters in D.C. Yet the Southwest Region managers were bona fide “timber beasts,” resisting court-mandated conservation measures and arguing that logging large trees was both economically and environmentally necessary.

Groping for solutions, beginning in 2004 the Forest Service made an initial attempt to restore the health of the pine belt, in a collaborative effort known as the White Mountain Stewardship Project. It was the agency’s largest forest restoration effort up to that point, targeting 150,000 acres in the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest over 10 years. But because the small trees slated for removal weren’t worth much, the Forest Service subsidized that project, spending more than $500 an acre and hiring local businesses that turned the small trees into wood pellets for home heating. Plagued by the economic recession and budget cutbacks, that project cost roughly $50 million but thinned less than half of the targeted acres.

The subsidized model wouldn’t work at a larger scale, due to the tight federal budgets. Some estimates put the cost of restoring the entire pine belt at $1 billion. So, many Arizonans pinned their hopes on the emergence of 4FRI and a colorful Frenchman who had a different business model for forest restoration. Pascal Berlioux’s pink polo shirts and French accent seemed out of place in northern Arizona, but he’d lived in the U.S. for 20 years, starting and selling an optoelectronics firm, then moving to Flagstaff because it reminded him of the French Alps of his childhood, and taking a job with the for-profit College America. Back in France, he’d run the first factory in Europe to make Oriented Strand Board, or OSB, an increasingly popular sheathing for buildings, made of woodchips and glue. With an Arizona developer as a partner, Berlioux formed a company called Arizona Forest Restoration Products, aiming to pay the Forest Service for access to the pine belt and turn the crowded, small trees into OSB. His plan seemed to make economic sense. OSB has largely replaced plywood in construction, but the nearest factory was more than 1,000 miles away, so if Berlioux built an Arizona factory, he could supply the region’s construction market at a fraction of the cost.

Aware of the contentious history, Berlioux began by establishing a broad base of community support, from conservative rural politicians to the Center for Biological Diversity, which was also seeking a way to restore the forest. He gained the group’s trust by sharing details of his 500-page-plus business plan, fine-tuning it to incorporate the group’s concerns about shaping the harvest to improve forest health. Berlioux also involved other environmentalists, local governments, community groups and investors. “I thoroughly analyzed their business model,” said Jim Miller, real estate director for John F. Long Properties LLLP, one of Arizona’s oldest and largest development companies, which was not a partner but financially backed Berlioux’s company. “Even if you diluted some of their assumptions 50 percent, it was still a profitable operation.”

The Escudilla Lookout stands amid the burned-out remains of the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest, where the human-caused Wallow Fire consumed close to a half-million acres. Kari Greer/U.S. Forest Service

Meanwhile, separate from Berlioux’s OSB business plan, stakeholders including him, the Center, other groups and county supervisors were advancing the 4FRI proposal. Such a massive project required federal backing as well as local support. So they lobbied the Forest Service and the Department of Agriculture in D.C. Reacting to many proposals like this from around the increasingly fire-prone West, in 2009 Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack created the Collaborative Forest Landscape Restoration Program to carry out large-scale, science-based forest restoration. Arizona’s 4FRI was the largest project selected, and the collaborative group at its heart eventually included dozens of stakeholders, who worked with the Forest Service to detail the restoration and environmental protections, in an environmental impact statement process that began in 2011.

Following agency regulations, the Forest Service decided which company would get access to 300,000 acres over 10 years — 4FRI’s first phase. Companies had to show how they would profit enough to pay for the restoration. Berlioux’s company had pledges of up to $400 million from investors, was clearly committed to the collaborative process, and had even gained support from some Forest Service officials in the field. “He had the experience to make it work and had the investment to make it go,” said Chris Knopp, who was head forester for the Apache-Sitgreaves, one of the four 4FRI forests, until late 2011.

Contracting decisions are usually left to individual forests, but because 4FRI is such a large project, the Forest Service’s Southwest Region headquarters took the reins. In May 2012, the regional headquarters sent out shockwaves by snubbing Berlioux and his collaborators. Instead, it awarded the contract to Montana-based Pioneer Associates, an under-the-radar company with close political ties to the Forest Service.

‘The brotherhood’ weighs in
Pioneer’s proposal revolved around a vague business plan to use Arizona’s small pines to make furniture and other wood products that are normally manufactured more cheaply in China, as well as brewing an experimental biodiesel from tree branches. “They claim they are going to run their logging trucks on it,” Tommie Martin, a Republican supervisor from Gila County in eastern Arizona, said at the time. “I say nonsense.” Martin had facilitated other collaborative projects with the Forest Service and worked in natural resource management across North America and East Africa. She pointed out that Pioneer Associates never actively participated in the 4FRI collaborative process or publicly discussed the details of its plan. She doubted that it would succeed.

Pioneer’s promises included building a $200 million factory in Winslow, Arizona, to make products like window- and door-frames. Its 83-year-old president, Herman Hauck, had started and sold a similar North Dakota business, TMI Systems. “His skill in designing and managing a start-up wood processing business is shown by the fact that (TMI Systems) is still successfully operating more than 30 years later,” the Pioneer proposal declared. The Forest Service touted Hauck’s “long, successful history in the wood industry” as one of the main reasons Pioneer got the contract.

Ponderosa pine in the Kaibab National Forest tagged for thinning, above, and the same forest after removing the small-diameter trees, below. Kaibab National Forest images courtesy Grand Canyon Trust

But when I contacted TMI’s president, Dennis Johnson, in 2012 — basic research the Forest Service should have done — he told me that Hauk deserved “very little credit” for the company’s success. “We bought his assets in bankruptcy proceedings,” Johnson said. Legal records verified that Hauck’s company, then called Hauck Mill Work, filed for bankruptcy in 1969. By Hauck’s own admission, that was the last wood business he ever ran. (He later went into real estate.) And the man who was supposed to run Pioneer’s window-and-door-frame factory in the pine belt, Mike Cooley, filed for bankruptcy on his own wood business — Cooley Industries Inc. — in 2012.

The Forest Service never released Pioneer’s complete proposal, citing confidentiality, but its own public analysis of the technical aspects drew strong criticism from experts. David Jones, a wood science and products professor at Mississippi State University, told me that much of the Forest Service analysis didn’t make scientific sense. “My colleagues and (I) had a good laugh over it. Either they don’t understand what they are doing, or they’ve just worded it badly.” One section, for instance, said the company would “densify” pine and turn it into high-priced hardwoods, like walnut and mahogany. “You can’t take a pine, which is a softwood, and turn it into a hardwood,” Jones told me. “That’s not possible.”

Jones questioned whether the Forest Service had asked any wood scientist to review the proposal. “If they did,” he asked, “why didn’t anybody raise any questions about this?” When I checked with Corbin Newman, head of the Forest Service’s Southwest Region, when the 4FRI decision was made, I discovered that Jones was right: The regional office selected Pioneer without consulting any wood scientist. Newman sent the proposal to the Forest Service national headquarters in D.C. for a review after the regional office made the decision, he told me. “I knew that we probably didn’t have all the technical expertise to assess the proposals. That’s why I asked for a secondary review at the national level.”

At that time, August 2012, Newman wasn’t sure if the D.C. review had taken place. In a written follow-up, he said that two technical experts reviewed the proposal at the national level, but he refused to let me to talk to them or anyone else in the government who could defend its technical merits. “That information does not contribute significantly to the public understanding of the operations or activities of the government,” Newman wrote. And Hauck declined to talk about Pioneer’s technology. “That is not open for discussion,” he said. “It is my own program that I have learned from foreign countries, and I cannot divulge that information.”

The Forest Service analysis also promised that Pioneer would turn the leftover branches, or slash, into clean biodiesel to fuel its trucks and sell at a nearby gas station. “The technology they propose to use for converting wood to bio-diesel is new but is being done at the production scale, including plants in the U.S. as well as India, Africa, and Europe,” the Forest Service wrote. A cursory Google search would have shown the agency that cellulosic biodiesel, as the fuel is known, has never been successfully commercially produced anywhere. The largest attempt at the time, by Range Fuels in Soperton, Georgia, went bankrupt in 2011 after getting more than $150 million in government subsidies.

My investigation also raised questions about Concord Blue, the German company Pioneer claimed would make its biodiesel. Thomas Sonntag-Roesing, the former chief engineer at the test plant in Herten, Germany, which developed the technology Concord Blue uses, told me that the plant tried to turn biomass like wood into a synthetic gas, not biodiesel — an entirely different process. And the plant never perfected the technology enough to “scale up” to commercial production of the syngas, he said.

Burning slash piles after thinning, part of the Mountainaire Project, a small restoration project in Arizona’s pine belt that shows what 4FRI hopes to accomplish over 2.4 million acres. 4FRI/USDA Forest Service

Even more confounding, Pioneer had offered the government $6.4 million for the 4FRI contract — 40 percent less than Berlioux’s company’s proposal to turn the small-diameter pines into OSB, a proven process. Stakeholders who had favored Berlioux’s proposal, including Martin and other rural county supervisors, suspected that Forest Service Southwest Region managers chose Pioneer partly because of a personal relationship. Marlin Johnson, Pioneer’s logging and restoration director, formerly headed the Southwest Region’s timber office. “While he was at the Forest Service, he was the liaison for Pioneer,” noted Taylor McKinnon, an environmentalist who worked on 4FRI with the Center for Biological Diversity until last year. “Within months of his retirement, he was representing Pioneer to the Forest Service. That is, he switched sides. It’s the perfect example of the revolving door.”

Johnson told me that his qualifications — including 40 years with the Forest Service — helped Pioneer get the contract, and politics played no role in it. But other ex-Forest Service employees and officials told me that the regional headquarters was a very political environment. It included a tightly knit, influential leadership group just below then-regional forester Newman, career employees who (like Johnson) had spent up to decades in Albuquerque. Newman was known for having a distant management style, delegating much decisionmaking to the group, which called itself “the brotherhood.” They included key managers who had battled environmentalists in court for years, at least one of whom had a direct role in selecting Pioneer for the 4FRI contract. Within the Forest Service, it was no secret that the group disliked Berlioux.

“I’ve heard many times that (Berlioux) was full of crap, yet when you read his proposal, it was an excellent proposal,” one former Forest Service official told me, speculating that Berlioux’s personality and outsider status may have rubbed some within the agency the wrong way. “He speaks his mind. He’s smart. He’s French.” To some, he came across as condescending or overbearing.

A bigger handicap, perhaps, was Berlioux’s decision to work closely with the Center for Biological Diversity, the Forest Service’s fiercest opponent in the Southwest Region. Berlioux had signed a formal 2009 Memorandum of Understanding, or MOU, with the center and another key player, the Grand Canyon Trust, outside the regular work of the 4FRI stakeholders. It committed the groups to supporting Berlioux’s company as long as he followed certain ecological principles. Crucially, Berlioux had agreed that he would not cut any trees over 16 inches in diameter. The center and others within the collaborative believed that a so-called “diameter cap” was necessary to protect the few remaining but ecologically vital large trees. Moderate voices celebrated the MOU because it meant the center wouldn’t litigate to stop the project. “My reaction was ‘Wow. This is the breakthrough we’ve all been waiting for,’ ” said Northern Arizona University ecologist Tom Sisk, a 4FRI member whose lab produced much of the science grounding the project.

In the Forest Service’s regional headquarters, the MOU was another strike against Berlioux. The region’s leadership team had long believed that it had to log more of the remaining large trees for valuable lumber to offset the cost of restoration. It had its own prescriptions for saving large trees for wildlife habitat and other reasons, and for logging them to achieve restoration goals, such as creating openings for other plants — and didn’t want to hand off those decisions to the stakeholders. It wanted to retain the ability to log them at its own discretion throughout 4FRI’s 2.4 million acres.

Tree planting after the 2010 Schultz Fire burned 15,000 acres near Flagstaff. 4FRI/USDA Forest Service

Collaborative projects are meant to resolve such conflicts, and 4FRI stakeholders had done just that, forging its consensus around the diameter cap, but also agreeing on multiple exceptions that allowed some large trees to be logged to achieve specific goals, such as encouraging flows at seeps and springs. “It was a hard process,” said the center’s Todd Schulke, “but we were successful in striking a balance that everybody could live with.” The stakeholders wrote it up as their “Large Tree Retention Strategy” and recommended that the Forest Service adopt it in 4FRI. But the Forest Service rejected that strategy too, and excluded it from the draft environmental impact statement.

“We started to wonder whether this kind of landscape-scale collaboration was even possible with the Forest Service,” Schulke said. “It felt like (the Southwest Region managers) don’t have any interest in taking real input from a broad range of stakeholders. They are really only interested in doing things the way they want and the way they always have.”

A Forest Service bias against Berlioux might explain some of the multiple irregularities that appeared in its evaluation of his company. The agency concluded, for instance, that no one associated with Berlioux’s company had experience managing a project of this type and scale, even though the company’s management team included not only Berlioux (who’d built the successful OSB plant in France) and Miller (an investor with a good track record), but also Don MacInnes, a Canadian who’d built seven OSB plants in North America and retrofitted another 10. Berlioux wondered, “Did (Forest Service decision-makers) not read what we sent them?” Even former regional forester Newman had a hard time explaining what his review committee was thinking. “I have no idea why they drew that conclusion. None,” he told me. “You would think that with that kind of bio, someone would clearly have shown that they’ve got experience doing it.”

Berlioux’s company disbanded after it didn’t get the 4FRI contract. (In another sign of community support for Berlioux, the key county supervisors hired him to head the Eastern Arizona Counties Association, where he now works primarily on 4FRI issues.) Meanwhile, just a month after Pioneer got the contract, Hauck publicly admitted that his company had no investors and lacked the money to start the job. By June 2013, the Forest Service granted two extensions of Pioneer’s deadline for raising the money, and reduced the contract’s first-year goal — thinning 15,000 acres — to just 1,000. Then Pioneer said it would search for a better-funded company that would buy the contract. That led to the September 2013 Forest Service announcement that Oman-based Good Earth Power was taking over the contract. The agency and the companies won’t reveal how much Good Earth Power paid Pioneer.

Questionable promises
Good Earth Power, which is legally bound to follow the terms of Pioneer’s contract, also retained Marlin Johnson, the controversial ex-Forest Service timber manager. Initially, Good Earth said it would harvest up to 800,000 tons of saw logs and 450,000 tons of biomass per year, along with launching new mills and a power plant, and producing biofuel by heating wood scraps to 1,000 degrees Celsius. In a press conference announcing the contract transfer, Rosamond said that Good Earth would focus on making wood products; the biofuel would come later. A few weeks later, in his presentation last October, however, Rosamond changed course, saying that “the reason we’re here is the biofuels side,” and making little mention of wood products. He also reported that Concord Blue — the biofuels company that Pioneer worked with in its plan, which would now be Good Earth’s partner — had a proven track record and a process for turning biomass, like garbage or wood, into syngas.

Good Earth Power and Concord Blue are both privately held, making it hard to get information about them. Representatives of both companies declined to talk with me, but their websites highlight their global accomplishments. Concord Blue’s site says the company “transforms nearly any form of local waste into a variety of clean, renewable fuels” using its patented “steam thermolysis” process “that efficiently ... produces the highest quality sustainable energy with virtually no pollutants.” The site describes five Concord Blue commercial plants around the world, with apparently up-to-date information on how much electricity or syngas each one produces daily.

I spent months trying to confirm the companies’ claims. Concord Blue’s website highlights a plant in Mumbai, India, that turns municipal and industrial waste into 20,000 megawatts of energy a day. But the deputy commissioner for Mumbai’s solid waste management department, Prakesh Patil, told me in October 2013 that the city has no such plant. Concord Blue inquired about a permit to build one, but didn’t pursue it, he said. And Concord Blue’s plant in Mahad, India — described as “live” and producing 1,200 cubic meters of syngas a day since 2011 for a pharmaceutical factory — never worked properly, breaking down every 10 to 15 days due to persistent glitches, according to the factory’s manager, Drona Chati. The Mahad plant closed in May 2013 for a major overhaul; except for a few failed trial days earlier this year, it has yet to reopen. Concord Blue’s website lists two plants in Japan, but my investigation found that one was only experimental and has been closed since June 2012, and the other still hasn’t opened due to technical problems. Executives of the two companies that own those Japanese plants told me they have nothing to do with Concord Blue.

Concord Blue touts its Pune, India, facility as the largest “steam thermolysis” plant in the world, processing 700 to 1,000 tons of untreated municipal solid waste per day — roughly 50 to 70 percent of the garbage from the city’s 3.1 million inhabitants — into 10 megawatts of electricity. According to my research, the plant processes just 200 tons of garbage a day and turns it into “refuse-derived fuel,” a relatively low-tech brick made from pressed garbage and burned for energy. The steam thermolysis technology never worked, Suresh Jagtap, head of Pune’s solid waste management department, told me. Still, he thought the problems had been fixed and the plant should be producing energy by the end of September. Even if that promise pans out, a Pune nonprofit watchdog group, Nagrik Chetna Manch, wants the local and state governments in India to force Concord Blue and Rochem, its Indian partner, to close the Pune plant because it pollutes the air and water. Last October, the Maharshtra Pollution Control Board (the equivalent of a state agency) informed the plant it was operating without board approval, discharging untreated waste into the city’s sewage system, and creating a “smell nuisance.” Though the Pune city government apparently continues to pay the plant to turn garbage into clean electricity, “it is a total fraud that they are playing out on the government,” Shrikant Patil, a business owner who volunteers for the group, told me. 

The Concord Blue website also described a plant under construction in Herten, Germany, but this came as news to town officials, whom I approached in person. “Really? We don’t see it,” Dieter Kwapis, in Herten’s economic development department, told me. The photo on the Concord Blue website shows the same abandoned plant that has sat in Herten since its chairs, coffee pots, and all other contents were sold off under a bankruptcy proceeding in 2011.

Jason Rosamond, center, meets with Kenya officials about a Good Earth Power agribusiness project there. Rosamond’s international company is the latest to win the contract to carry out the Four Forest Restoration Initiative in Arizona. Tom Otieno/Nation Media Group

As for Good Earth Power, its website provides few details about its accomplishments, and the company has a relatively low profile in global press accounts. Focusing on one of its claims, voiced by Rosamond and the website, I talked with greenhouse experts in the U.S. and Europe who doubt that it’s installing high-tech greenhouses, 100 times more productive than commercial farms, that could ease global hunger. “Their numbers are nonsense,” Louis Albright, one of the world’s top greenhouse researchers and a professor emeritus at Cornell University, told me. Cornell’s cutting-edge greenhouses have improved production by 20 times, but “going 100 (times), I think, would be impossible,” he said.*

Perhaps there are reasonable explanations for the contradictions. But it seems clear that, once again, the Forest Service either did shoddy research or isn’t disclosing everything it knows. And there’s no doubt that, today, with the Forest Service in charge, 4FRI is still struggling.

In Arizona last October, Rosamond promised that Good Earth Power would provide financial assistance so local timber companies could quickly ramp up the necessary manpower and equipment; indeed, restoring Arizona’s timber industry is one of 4FRI’s central goals. By late 2013, Good Earth Power seemed ready to follow through, giving the first “task order” to Chris Anderson’s company, Forest Restoration Management, to thin 952 acres in the Tonto National Forest. Anderson wanted to expand his company to rapidly complete the order, and get in line for more. But the financial backing he hoped for didn’t appear, he told me in February.

In the increasingly complicated business arrangements, Good Earth Power has hired the Campbell Group, an Oregon-based company, to manage the day-to-day 4FRI work. The Campbell Group also declined an interview, but according to its website, it’s associated with another entity, Campbell Global, and mostly helps wealthy investors buy and manage millions of acres of private forests. Anderson said that the Campbell Group told him it wouldn’t financially assist him, even as it pressured him to work faster. Then Anderson’s company lost its 4FRI contract in March, because the Forest Service determined its work was unsatisfactory; apparently, his company lacked the proper equipment. A new company, Tri-Star Logging, took over that task order, but has also reported problems. Good Earth Power has failed to pay Tri-Star on time, according to Steve Reidhead, Tri-Star’s president. “Supposedly this is a billion-dollar company. I’m not here to get anybody in trouble, but the truth is the truth,” Reidhead said.

In Anderson’s view, 4FRI is such a “massive undertaking” that “realistically, someone needs to be throwing huge amounts of money at logging equipment and manpower, like yesterday, or six months ago. If the financial support (Rosamond) promised is now not there, the future of 4FRI is completely up in the air.”

Destroying the collaboration
The Forest Service’s mismanagement of 4FRI resembles its historic habit of giving timber companies what they wanted, even when the environment suffered, and its “below-cost” timber sales to companies that paid less for the wood than the agency spent building roads and running the sales. The agency’s frequent inability to work with environmental groups — particularly the Center for Biological Diversity — is also on display. “There’s enough agreement on forest management in Arizona now to move forward in a very big way,” Suckling, the center’s head, told me. “The counties have also come a long way, having finally come to terms with death of big-tree logging. All we need to do is overcome the Forest Service’s resentful stubbornness. Not the Forest Service, really — most of its people have made the turn — just a few agency power players unable to reorient themselves to the new social consensus.”

The Forest Service does pull off smaller restoration efforts around the West. But William deBuys, a New Mexico-based author who has written about the Forest Service and worked with it on conservation projects, thinks that 4FRI reflects “an almost chronic and institution-wide inability to move projects forward.” He cited two other large collaborative projects in the agency’s Southwest Region — in New Mexico’s Rio Trampas watershed and the Jemez Mountains — that are roughly a year behind schedule. The tight budgets, an emphasis on fire suppression over forest health, and resistance to new forest-management realities, including collaboration, are partly to blame, along with overall low morale. The Forest Service isn’t doing critical fire prevention work necessary for the West’s forests to survive, deBuys adds. “What we’re seeing is a failed institution, and I don’t know if it can be turned around.”

By now, the Forest Service is on the verge of destroying the collaboration that came up with the whole idea of 4FRI. By strangling Berlioux’s fledgling company and refusing to limit the size of trees that would be cut, even with multiple exceptions, the agency has successfully antagonized the formidable Center for Biological Diversity. The Center has yet to declare that it will use its weapon of choice — lawsuits — to challenge 4FRI, but there have been warning signs. Earlier this year, the group blasted the Forest Service’s plan to log old-growth trees in the Wild Buck section of a smaller restoration project in the pine belt. “Nearly 30 percent of trees to be cut in the Wild Buck sale — 78 percent of total volume — are larger than 16 inches diameter,” wrote the center’s Jay Lininger in the Arizona Republic. “In other words, the Forest Service’s first move out of the gate in a ‘forest restoration’ project is to sell thousands of large and old trees for commercial purposes rather than meeting its own mandate to clear small trees for fire safety.”

Southwest Region leadership might be evolving. Regional forester Newman retired in 2013, and several core members of the “brotherhood” have stepped down. (When I sought comments from two people that my sources identified as brotherhood members, they denied there was a brotherhood and said they made decisions based on science and other legitimate reasons.) The new regional forester, Cal Joyner, a hydrologist who worked in many forests around the West and then did a two-year stint in high-level Forest Service management in D.C., seems to be reconsidering the rejection of the Large Tree Retention Strategy. The final environmental impact statement on 4FRI’s first phase, expected within a month or two, will show if the agency has changed its thinking about large trees.

But the Forest Service continues to push back 4FRI deadlines to give Good Earth Power more time, while not being frank with the public about what’s going on. The agency claims 4FRI is on track based on the number of acres covered by the task orders, for instance, but doesn’t issue “notice to proceed” orders — a necessary step to begin the work — until much later. By July 30, more than five years after the stakeholders and the Forest Service came up with the idea for the 2.4-million-acre project, 4FRI had restored only 1,772 acres (650 by Pioneer Associates and the rest by Good Earth Power).

It’s not clear what Good Earth Power will get from 4FRI if its predictions prove too ambitious or downright bogus. Some have speculated that the company will seek various U.S. government subsidies to develop Concord Blue’s technology, and then export it, very profitably, throughout Africa. (Rosamond has denied that he’s seeking subsidies, and a 2007 federal law specifically prohibits subsides for refineries that process public timber into biofuels.) The 4FRI contract has already brought Good Earth Power greater visibility; the company has even struck a deal with Lockheed Martin to deploy its technologies throughout the world. But it’s still searching for a path to success in Arizona’s pine belt. At a June stakeholders meeting, it changed course once again, saying it wouldn’t wait until Concord Blue’s biofuel technology is ready, but would instead start turning thinned trees into composted soil — a relatively low-priced product that is expensive to transport.

Then in late July, Campbell Group’s local boss, Steve Horner, said the company would concentrate on turning medium-sized trees, 14 to 18 inches in diameter, into lumber, infuriating proponents of a 16-inch diameter cap. As Horner acknowledged, even that will be difficult. The area that’s supposed to be treated in 4FRI’s first 10 years, on the project’s west side, still lacks industry to process the wood, something the winning 4FRI contractor was supposed to build.

The Forest Service could still turn 4FRI around. It has the authority to periodically evaluate Good Earth Power’s performance, and if the company falls short of its goals, it could revoke the contract, invite other companies to submit proposals, and hand off the contracting decision to an independent, reputable audit and consulting firm with a proven ability to make sound business decisions. The Forest Service could also make an effort to keep the project out of courtroom warfare, by accepting enough of the Large Tree Retention Strategy to satisfy the stakeholders who hammered it out. One thing’s for sure: Arizona’s forests need better management. 

Claudine LoMonaco is a Berlin-based writer and radio producer. She previously lived in Arizona and has covered environmental issues, the Mexican border and immigration for a variety of news operations, including NPR and the BBC. The first round of her 4FRI investigation was published in June 2013 in the Santa Fe Reporter.

The Fund for Investigative Journalism, along with contributors to HCN’s Enterprise Journalism Fund, supported research for this story.

*The quote from Cornell University professor Louis Albright has been corrected: In the version printed in the HCN magazine, we had Albright saying "20 percent" but he really said "20 times."