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Surplus trees could light homes

Patrick McCartney

editor’s note: Tahoe Basin forests are still feeling the effects of Comstock Era clear-cutting, a century of fire suppression and, most recently, an infestation of bark beetles. Today, the Tahoe Daily Tribune takes a look at the possible use of plants that would convert dead and overstocked trees into energy and other products.

Faced with the need to thin overstocked stands of trees in the Tahoe Basin, forest managers are considering the use of biomass facilities that would convert saplings and dead trees to electricity, plant mulch or wood products.

In many areas, the U.S. Forest Service has relied on timber sales to subsidize the removal of rotten or undersized trees that are unmarketable.

But that strategy has become increasingly difficult to pursue in the Tahoe Basin, where the Forest Service’s Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit has planned a series of forest health projects.

Part of the reason is the slumping timber market, which reduced revenues from the Forest Service’s 6,600-acre East Shore Project.

And, because the Forest Service requires the bidders to accomplish environmental goals, companies such as timber giant Sierra Pacific Industries have been reluctant to bid at all on Tahoe Basin timber sales.

While the Forest Service is increasing its use of prescribed fires to reduce the forest density, different basin agencies are also considering the use of biomass plants to mechanically thin the forest.

“We see it ideally as a combination of both,” said Dave McNeil of the Nevada State Energy Office, who authored a concept paper on the use of biomass power. “In areas with a catastrophic amount of fuel, you can’t go in with fire first. We need to do some thinning first.”

Generating power by burning sub-merchantable wood is not a new idea. Biomass plants already exist in California, but the closest to the Tahoe Basin is 40 miles away in Loyalton. The cost of hauling a ton of wood to the plant, around $35, exceeds the $20 a ton that Sierra Pacific Industries, which operates the 20 megawatt facility, is willing to pay for biomass in today’s market.

Surplus wood culled from Tahoe’s forests could be hauled to Loyalton, if the Forest Service or others are willing to subsidize the cost, said Don Kornreich, who chairs the Nevada-Tahoe Conservation District.

“We hope in future years, if we get a basin sales tax, gas tax or basin user fee, we could do that,” Kornreich said. “But right now, that’s not an option.”

Matt Frolich, a biomass consultant from Gardnerville, has analyzed the potential for Lake Tahoe’s biomass market for the conservation district, and believes in its future. More than 20,000 tons a year of unmarketable wood can be harvested annually from the basin, he said, and could be used to produce energy, wood products, chemical binders and as raw material for use in plastic-like products.

“In my opinion, we should have been working on biomass a long time ago, and could have if the cost of power had increased,” Frolich said. He added that what is needed most is creative uses for the harvested wood.

One entrepreneur who is hoping to provide a biomass plant near the Tahoe Basin is Garry Bowen, who was semi-retired from the wood products industry and has his eye on both energy plants and a biomass materials facility.

Bowen said he will seek a $1.5 million grant from the federal Department of Energy for a portable wood-to-energy plant in Slaughterhouse Canyon near Glenbrook. His Sierra Synecology would address both the environmental and economic issues wrapped up in the basin’s forest health concerns, Bowen said.

“Biomass is a renewable resource,” Bowen said. “It’s not waste.”

So far, uses for Tahoe’s overstocked trees has been limited.

Timberland Resource Renewal of the Carson Valley trucked 450 loads of unwanted timber this summer from the Forest Service project near Spooner Summit. The 4,500 tons of logs and wood debris were ground into a mulch, and sold to the Bentley Ranch.

“It makes a high-grade mulch. We used 100 percent of what we hauled,” said Glen Thomas, the company’s president. Although its profits were small, the company plans to continue its work in the basin next year, he added.

Chances for a more extensive use of the basin’s surplus trees will await a funding source, say those who are studying the potential for biomass. Money could come from the Forest Service, or possibly from $30 million in bond money approved by the voters of California and Nevada, Kornreich said.


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