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Forest officials say there's a surplus of biomass

Aug 24, 2009 - Ed Merriman Baker - McClatchy-Tribune Regional News

There's a surplus of slash available from fuels reduction and forest health thinning projects on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest, and companies who need the material to fuel biomass energy projects are welcome to it.

Federal forest officials delivered that message Wednesday to the Baker County Board of Commissioners.

Ken Anderson, district ranger for the Whitman Ranger District headquartered in Baker City, said biomass utilization and stewardship are integrated into forest management plans, including the Snow Basin vegetation and fuels management project north of Richland, which is in the final planning stages.

"Currently, the Whitman Ranger District has about 20 million board-feet under contract, with an additional 5 million anticipated next year," Anderson said, adding that in the long run, between 5 million and 8 million board-feet of biomass material is expected to be available from service contracts designed to reduce fuel loading and improve forest health and wildlife habitat, and from slash left over from commercial timber sales and pre-commercial thinning.

Commission Chairman Fred Warner Jr. said a Baker City company, Elkhorn Biomass, is champing at the bit to increase its production of biomass products ranging from bundled firewood to pressed logs pellets for wood-burning stoves and fireplaces.

With county payments from sales of timber on federal forests dwindling, Warner said developing a biomass industry may offer the best home of providing some income to the county and its incorporated cities.

"In my lifetime in Baker County we are not likely to see enough (timber) cut to make a difference," Warner said. "We are never going to live off 25 percent of timber receipts. We'd rather have people working in the woods than be tied to timber payments, anyway."

However, Warner said uncertainty about the available supply of woody biomass has been a concern holding back development and growth of a local or regional woody biomass industry.

"Is there any way you can support getting a biomass plant here?" Commissioner Tim Kerns asked.

Kerns said there's no sense building a biomass plant in Baker City or one proposed in Unity if the Forest Service isn't able to supplement the woody biomass available from private woodlands, where long-term supply may be limited depending on how much biomass companies can pay them to harvest and deliver woody biomass.

"With Elkhorn Biomass, they are wanting to ramp up if they can get sufficient supply," Warner told Anderson and Steve Ellis, Wallowa-Whitman supervisor. "Is there any way you can guarantee supply (of woody biomass material)?"

Anderson said biomass generated from all types of logging and forest stewardship work on the Whitman Ranger District "can be available for removal, but we are seeing little interest at this time."

"Any way we could support that, we would be happy to do," Ellis said. "Utilizing biomass is good for the forest."

Ellis said Congress and federal forest officials in Washington, D.C., want to see a reduction in smoke and greenhouse gases generated by forest fires and burning of slash piles on national forests across the country.

"There is concern about smoke from burning," Ellis said. "There are thresholds we try not to exceed."

To reduce the fire threat and improve forest health in Baker County, the Wallowa-Whitman is scheduled to receive $1.4 million to $2 million to pay for various fuels treatment projects. Those treatments include thinning, hand piling of woody material, mechanical piling and prescribed burning, but Ellis said there's no reason that material couldn't be transported to a landing area or a biomass plant to be converted into wood pellets, logs or energy instead of burning it in slash piles.

Ellis pointed out that lawsuits filed by environmental groups, as well as judicial decision on appeals of lawsuits have rolled back recent changes in forest management rules and restored rules in effect in 1982. That has sent forest planners back to the drawing board and slowed down decisions on the Snow Basin project and other pending projects on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest and other national forests around the country.

With regard to the 12,000-acre Snow Basin project, Warner said he is concerned that if it winds up being a modified stewardship program, spread out over a number of years, it would not yield much timber payments that have historically provided substantial funding dedicated to road maintenance and schools.

"Is stewardship going to be the new thing in the future?" Warner asked.

Anderson explained that under traditional logging contracts loggers bid on timber sales based on the amount of merchantable timber. Those traditional timber sales contracts usually call for piling and burning the slash because gathering and removing it historically has cost more than the material was worth, so contractors didn't want it.

In recent years, Anderson said, when money is available the Forest Service has had the option of stewardship contracts, where contractors are paid to remove sick and dying trees, thin overcrowded stands and do other work to reduce the risk of unnatural stand-replacing fires and improve forest health and wildlife habitat.

"What we like about this form of stewardship is it gives us a lot of flexibility to get things done," Anderson said.

If there's enough money, and enough demand from Elkhorn Biomass and other biomass companies, Anderson said the Forest Service can write stewardship contracts with provisions calling for contractors to transport biomass material to a landing area or a plant instead of piling it and burning it in the woods.

More of those types of stewardship contracts would be possible if biomass companies can pay the Forest Service for those materials, Anderson said.

He said it may also be possible to shift money that the Forest Service has spent in the past to dispose of woody biomass materials and use it to gather up and haul the material to a location where it could be utilized by biomass companies.

"There is a need for some way to process biomass other than burning it. We expend money to expose of that material routinely," Anderson said. "We would be looking for a way to make that same investment in a way to help (a biomass) industry."


Updated: 2016/06/30

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