Sen. Kelly Presses Forest Service Leadership on 4FRI Next Steps in Committee Hearing

Today, during a hearing in the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, Arizona Senator Mark Kelly pressed the Deputy Chief of the Forest Service, Christopher French, for answers and transparency regarding the Forest Service’s decision to cancel the contract solicitation for phase 2 of the Four Forests Restoration Initiative (4FRI). This decision further delayed large-scale thinning of forests in northern and eastern Arizona, and is the latest setback in a program meant to restore fire-adapted forest ecosystems to mitigate against catastrophic wildfires. French told Kelly in the hearing that the Forest Service plans to announce possible next steps for 4FRI as soon as next month.

Senator Kelly questions Chris French, Deputy Chief of the Forest Service, in an Energy and Natural Resources hearing on October 21. 

Just last week, Kelly traveled to Show Low and Pinetop-Lakeside, where he met with local Mayors and heard their concerns regarding the cancellation announcement. Earlier this year, Kelly also visited a forest restoration site near Flagstaff in the Coconino National Forest that was treated by The Nature Conservancy as part of 4FRI.

At a June hearing in the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources, U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen told Kelly that the Forest Service plans to make an announcement that month on the 4FRI Phase 2 contract award but that offers could extend into July. Kelly had previously written Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, urging him to work through the Forest Service to ensure that Phase 2 of 4FRI moved forward without delay.


To watch Kelly’s full remarks, click HERE.  

For a transcript of his remarks and exchange with the witness, see below:

[0:01]: Thank you, Mr. Chairman, good morning everybody. Mr. French, I know this hearing is about pending legislation, but we have a pressing matter in Arizona involving the Four Forests Restoration Initiative or 4FRI. 4FRI is the Forest Service’s first large scale forest stewardship project in the nation, and it’s vital to reducing the severity of wildfires in our state. And its success or failure has ramifications for forest management policy across the West. 

4FRI would mechanically thin more than 500,000 acres to return our forests to their natural, fire-adapted state. Now last month, the Forest Service canceled a long-awaited contract solicitation to mechanically thin 30,000 acres per year over a 20 year term. This cancelation is devastating to Arizona’s forest communities that spent years, they spent years helping the Forest Service build the stakeholder support for the contract.

We’ve been waiting on the Forest Service to ramp-up 4FRI for a decade now. Secretary Vilsack, when he served under President Obama, traveled to Arizona and participated in the launch of 4FRI. That was in 2011. In June, testifying before this committee, Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen assured me that an award would be issued in July. She said that in June.

This isn’t the first time that Arizona has had the rug pulled out from us. Senator McSally, Senator Kyl, Senator Flake, and the late Senator John McCain—each of them were promised by one Chief after another that 4FRI was a priority. Mr. French, I know that the Forest Service is discussing next steps with Arizona stakeholders, but we will be holding your agency accountable every step of the way. 

Mr. French, my question to you is, you know, one idea being floated is the issuance of a brand new RFP. I’m not convinced that that’s realistic. Is the Forest Service confident that industry will come back to the table once again?

[2:27]: Thank you, Senator. I share your concerns. And you should hold us accountable. You know, I grew up in Arizona, my family lives in Arizona, I understand the importance of this project to Arizonans. I also understand the importance of us getting it right. I am, myself and the Chief, are personally engaged with leadership as we go forward in the region and what they’re doing right now to come up with a solution that will make this successful. We are working really closely with our partners, the Governor’s office, and we’re being transparent about that with our congressional staffs. I am confident from what I see right now, is that we are going to have a solution that is better than what was in the RFP in a way that will better serve industry that is already there and attract industry in places where it’s been lost. We’re looking to be able to announce some of that in November, and I’ll leave it there. 

[3:47]: Are you hearing anything positive from industry about coming back to the table?

[3:50]: Am I hearing personally? I can’t say that I am, Senator, but I am hearing from the folks that are working on this locally that we are being more responsive to their needs. 

[4:07]: So we’ve lost, as you know we’ve lost years of lead time to thin these forests. What is the Forest Service doing now, right now, to strategically prioritize acres in the 4FRI footprint when we get this underway?

[4:22]: It is the highest priority for long term funds that we have as part of our strategic approach to reducing wildland fire risk. And so as we look at the potential appropriations that are coming from Congress, whether through our regular appropriations or the potential of the bipartisan infrastructure deal or the reconciliation bill, we look at those potential funds that are coming through those as a first priority to drive towards 4FRI.

[4:53]: Okay so it sounds like you’re tracking the infrastructure bill, which I think is a very positive thing. And finally, Mr. French, so Senator Sinema and I would like Chief Moore to travel to Arizona and meet with some 4FRI stakeholders. Can you look into that for us?

[5:10]: Yes.

[5:11]: Thank you.