Bioenergy – What it means to the American West

January 15, 2015 8:51 pm

Escudilla Fire Tower

2012 Wallow Fire / Escudilla Fire Tower

Written by: Rob Davis, Forest Energy Corporation President

Wildfire has always been a part of the landscape in the American West. But for the last decade or so, the west has been plagued by destructive, uncharacteristically large and uncontrollable wildfires.  Just in Eastern Arizona we have experienced the Rodeo Chedeski Fire (2002, 435,000 acres), the Wallow Fire (2012, 530,000 acres) and this year the San Juan Fire (7,005 acres).

The cost of fighting, recovering and trying to replace the damages from these wildfires is in the billions annually and often there are losses that can’t be readily recovered, such as the loss of over 50% of the Mexican Spotted Owl nesting sites on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest.  During the Rodeo Chedeski and the Wallow fires, it wasn’t just nest sites, but active nests with owl pairs and nestlings.

While climate change and drought contribute to these fires, a century of fire suppression and reduced management have set the stage for the disasters of the last decade. Policy makers continue to debate climate policy, but forest restoration can minimize the size, cost and damage when there is a fire.  Restoration, through mechanical removal of millions of tons of hazardous fuels, primarily very small growth and small trees cluttering the forests, is the prescription determined necessary by the best science in the world and agreed to by all stakeholders, from foresters, environmentalists, wildlife experts, recreationalists, hunters, and water providers.

There had been little restoration management accomplished in the decade prior to the Rodeo Chedeski Fire and it raged for weeks and destroyed not only forests and watersheds, but many homes and lives.  This was the impetus for the beginning of restoration that altered the outcome of the Wallow Fire.  Only a few critical acres were restored, but they were in the right locations and a great deal more had been planned.  Those critical few acres saved the town of Alpine, AZ, from almost certain complete destruction as it also did for Greer, AZ.  Although the fire severely damaged watersheds and destroyed habitat, little infrastructure and few homes were lost.

When the San Juan Fire blew up this summer on a hot, dry, windy day, the story had evolved even further.  The smoke clouds billowed within the first few hours to 20,000 feet and the fire headed through the forest toward several communities.  In its path was a restored forest, an area thinned and the hazardous fuels removed converted into renewable biomass energy.  A well-managed forest that brought the flames and the danger to the ground.  Within days the fire was contained and resolved.  There were virtually no losses, including the big trees that didn’t burn.  In other words, thanks to active management, the fire behaved more like the historic, low-intensity fires that we should expect in Arizona’s forests, rather than the scorching hot mega-fires we’ve been experiencing.

And what does this have to do with Biomass Energy?  Biomass energy has been the major driver enabling implementation of this forest management through restoration.  The local pellet mill, Forest Energy Corporation, has paid for the low to no value residuals from the restoration projects on the Apache-Sitgreaves National Forest for 15 years, helping to pay for the forest restoration that saved Alpine and Greer.  Both Forest Energy and Novo Power, a local biomass power plant, removed the hazardous fuels, and helped create a restored forest that stopped the San Juan Fire.

Without these biomass operations paying for the biomass and its conversion to renewable energy, and the local sawmills buying this low value timber for the production of wood products, restoration of the forests would not be possible.  Millions more would be spent fighting these wildfires, and the precious renewable resources that are our forests would be wasted.

The total public benefit and savings from forest restoration are may not be completely quantifiable, but they include the costs of fighting fires, cleanup, erosion control and rehabilitation in the forest, and the costs to replace or repair private property and critical infrastructure.  These are just the direct costs, which far exceed the cost of restoration.  In addition, we are preventing the disruption to local economies, in the short and long term, the disruption to wildlife and our water supplies, and we are saving our precious forests and their many benefits.

Renewable biomass and other forest products businesses are spending over $15 million annually that enables restoration and the removal of hazardous fuels. They have invested over $100 million into their facilities to process these materials into beneficial products.  This private investment is considerably more than the restoration and hazardous fuels budgets of the United States Forest Service for Arizona.

Energy from biomass, whether for heating or electricity, is renewable energy.  It is sustainable and displaces fossil fuel use, keeping ancient carbon out of the atmosphere.

But biomass energy’s benefits are not just renewable energy and well managed forests, they also foster healthy rural economies by creating:

  • Good paying jobs.
  • A market for the by-products from higher value forest products businesses, like sawmills, improving their long term viability which is also critical for the ability to manage our forests.
  • A market for the forest materials that the best science tells us must be removed from the forest, to maintain its health and your security.

The decision to manage our forests and utilize the residuals to benefit the public is about the will of the people.  This is about a well-educated public demanding that their resources be managed: for wildlife, recreation, watersheds, fire mitigation and production of forest products that benefit local communities, the region, the atmosphere and especially the forests.  They should demand that their tax dollars are wisely used to partner with the private sector that is investing heavily in the future of our forests.  The biomass energy industry’s investments and ongoing operations in Eastern Arizona  as well as the other forest products businesses that have invested to make valuable products from the low value material, have been the key to making restoration economically viable, improving our forests, our forest communities and our state.  Bioenergy reduces your cost of living and improves the lives of you and your children now and in the future.



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