EDITORIAL: Seeing the Forest for the Trees, Part Five

Read Part One

This 2,000 year-old practice converts agricultural waste into a soil enhancer that can hold carbon, boost food security, and increase soil biodiversity, and discourage deforestation. The process creates a fine-grained, highly porous charcoal that helps soils retain nutrients and water.

— from the International Biochar Initiative website.

Once upon a time, before the invention of the railroad, the primeval forests — surrounding the area around the sulfur-smelling hot springs known in the Ute language as “Pah Gosa” — featured Ponderosa pines up to 60 feet tall and more than 500 years old. The older trees had survived, on average, more than 150 forest fires during their lifetimes.

logging timber industry archuleta county pagosa springs

The new railroad built by the New Mexico Lumber Company arrived in 1896 in the town of Chromo, in the southeastern corner of Archuleta County, and three years later, the Pagosa Lumber Company completed a railroad spur that terminated between South 8th and South 7th streets in the recently incorporated town of Pagosa Springs. By the time the Great Depression reached southwest Colorado, the largest and most easily-accessible trees had been harvested in Archuleta County, and the railroads — lacking a regular supply of freight — stopped operating.

During Pagosa’s lumbering heyday, the lumber companies naturally focused on harvesting the largest trees they could find, and ignored the smaller trees. A mature Ponderosa provided better quality boards, and more efficient milling, compared to an immature tree. This meant that, by 1935, many of the forests in Archuleta County had been left in a relatively unnatural state — with only young trees still left growing.

Over the past 20 years, forestry science has been formulating new theories about the connection between fire and forest health. Some experts feel that, by suppressing wildfire in our Western forests, we have created unhealthy — and dangerous — conditions that will, if left treated, inevitably lead to ever-more-disastrous wildfires.

When Pagosa businessman J.R Ford began assembling the partnership that eventually named itself Renewable Forest Energy LLC, he had a very different view of forestry resources from what had been exhibited by New Mexico Lumber Company and Pagosa Lumber Company a hundred years earlier. Rather than viewing the Archuleta County wilderness as a place to extract a valuable building material, Renewable Forest Energy looked at the vast Ponderosa forest as a sick patient in serious need of treatment.

The suggested treatment was to harvest — not the largest and most healthy trees — but the smaller trees that were causing overcrowded, unsafe conditions in the forest. Most of these smaller trees would be unsuitable for lumber, but they could be pretty efficiently ground into wood chips, given the right machinery.

The “right machinery” was already being developed in Europe, it seemed: a vehicle that could grasp a small tree and feed the entire tree into its chipper.

Photo courtesy Renewable Forest Energy LLC

The next problem was, what to do with all those wood chips? The plan developed over the past 10 years by Renewable Forest Energy was to use the wood chips as “biomass” to feed an electric generation plant, using relatively new ‘gasifier’ technology. The first projections suggested a 5-megawatt plant. (That estimate was later adjusted to 4Mw… and then to 3Mw.)

Then, over several years of sometimes intense negotiations, it became apparent that rural Colorado’s primary electricity provider, Tri-State Generation and Transmission Association, was not going to allow La Plata Electric Association (LPEA) to pay a reasonable rate to buy power from Renewable Forest Energy.

Meanwhile, the stockpile of wood chips from forest treatments continued to grow on the 40 acres at the north end of Cloman Boulevard.

So, if you can’t make electricity… what’s the next most reasonable use for thousands of tons of wood chips?

Well… how about biochar?

Renewable Forest Energy had spent the past ten years researching ‘gasifier’ technology, with plans to use that process in its electric plant. As it turns out, the same technology can be used to create a soil amendment known as ‘biochar.’

It turns out to be a popular soil amendment among the folks who grow marijuana, for example.  And it’s also popular, as a ‘carbon sequestering process’ among folks concerned about climate change. From the International Biochar Initiative website:

Biochar can be an important tool to increase food security and cropland diversity in areas with severely depleted soils, scarce organic resources, and inadequate water and chemical fertilizer supplies. Biochar also improves water quality and quantity by increasing soil retention of nutrients and agrochemicals for plant and crop utilization. More nutrients stay in the soil instead of leaching into groundwater and causing pollution.

The carbon in biochar resists degradation and can hold carbon in soils for hundreds to thousands of years… the system can become “carbon negative.” Biochar and bioenergy co-production can help combat global climate change by displacing fossil fuel use and by sequestering carbon in stable soil carbon pools…

During my visit to the sawmill at the end of Cloman Boulevard, J.R. Ford led me over to a large metal shed, where a couple dozen huge white fabric bags were stacked. He opened one of the bags to reveal grains of black charcoal.

J.R. Ford:

“Dave and Matt have been working with the company that we’re building the technology from, and they built a demonstration plant in Kansas, outside of Wichita.”

That would be the company’s chemist Dave Richardson, and engineer Matt Ford.

“We shipped them wood chips, because we wanted to know exactly what the gasifier would do with our particular product. They funded most of the plant; we put some money into it — and they built a demo plant about 1/20th the size of the plant we want to build. We wanted them to prove… they have to guarantee us a price, not to exceed… and they have to guarantee us a minimum amount of product coming out. So we wanted them to guarantee, for every ton of chips we put in, we’d get ‘so many yards’ of biochar.

“Without running an actual plant, you would never know. And not all biochar is equal, so you have to make sure you run it at the right temperature. So they did a demo plant, to prove that they could do it.”

As I recall from our conversation, the new biochar plant will cost in the neighborhood of $18 million.

So I guess you would want some proof that the process works.

Read Part Six…


Bill Hudson

Bill Hudson founded the Pagosa Daily Post in 2004 in hopes of making a decent living writing about local politics. The hope remains.