EDITORIAL: Seeing the Forest for the Trees, Part Six

Read Part One

We began this article series a week ago with a discussion about tree farming — one of the agricultural land uses that receives special property tax treatment from the state of Colorado, and therefore, from its administrative arm, our Archuleta County government. We looked very briefly at a couple of local tree farmers who are maintaining small 40-acre operations just south of downtown Pagosa.

Yesterday, I finished a brief summary of the ongoing lumber operations taking place at the end of Cloman Boulevard, on the 40-acre parcel owned by Renewable Forest Energy — and we also discussed that company’s proposed biochar business as an interesting interface between “forest health” and “profitable biomass utilization.”

Money is one piece of the puzzle, in all of these operations — in the form of tax breaks, or company earnings and investor profits. We might also reckon employee wages into the mix.

But another big piece of the puzzle is environmental stewardship. How can we — the human race — effectively cooperate with the natural web of life, to ensure the best possible world for our grandchildren?

Practically every day, the Daily Post receives a press release from this or that government agency, explaining how the agency is dealing with this or that now-abandoned-but-still-toxic mining operation. Many of those press releases have referenced the frightening 2015 Gold King disaster, caused (accidentally, it seems) by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. That toxic spill of mining waste tainted the Animas River, and then the San Juan River, beginning just south of Silverton, through the city of Durango, and ultimately through New Mexico and Utah. One of the largest collective impacts occurred within the Navajo Nation, when commercial and family farmers ceased crop irrigation for two weeks while the waters cleared of toxic metal pollution — during the height of the growing season. Arizona Senator John McCain estimated the economic damage to the Navajo farmers at more than $300 million.

Archuleta County has remained remarkably free of mining pollution, compared to other mountain towns in Colorado — mainly because no one (yet) has located significant deposits of precious metals within the county boundaries. Instead, the county grew up on a steady agricultural diet — timber and cattle and sheep ranching. Those industries had their own impacts on the local environment, but unlike mining — which often stays mainly hidden underground — profitable agriculture has traditionally required vast expanses of open, unpolluted land.

That economic pattern left Archuleta County with plenty of wide open spaces and well-forested mountainsides, perfect for a recreational economy — and one that’s been attractive to a certain type of visitor, and a certain type of retiree. It was also, for a couple of decades, attractive to a certain type of subdivision developer, who could buy up (economically marginal?) ranching operations, and chop the land up into 40-acre parcels.

The 40-acre parcel is an interesting animal, and one that has been prolific in Colorado following the passage of Senate bill SB 35 in 1972. SB 35 was enacted to provide some regulation over the subdivision of land in Colorado, and it required counties to pass laws to regulate parcels of land smaller than 35 acres. C.R.S. 30-38-101 defines a subdivision or subdivided land as a parcel of land divided into two or more parcels. (The 35-acre exemption is inapplicable when the property owner seeks to construct multiple residences on a parcel which is more than 35 acres.) Unless an exemption applies, any subdivision created that includes parcels smaller than 35 acres must be approved by the Planning Commission or Board of County Commissioners to be considered “valid”.

Failing to comply with SB 35 has potentially disastrous consequences, including the inability to procure a building permit or utilities for the property affected. Moreover, the sole remedy may be the forced re-combining of the land that gave rise to the illegal subdivision, and this can be a logistical nightmare when years have passed and ownership may have changed hands repeatedly.

Thus the popularity of 35-acres parcels.  And 40-acres parcels.

Historically, the U.S. government encouraged settlement of the West by “giving away” free parcels of land to adventurous homesteaders willing to try and build a life in the middle of nowhere… and the typical parcel was called a “section” of 640 acres. Dividing a section neatly into parcels no smaller than 35 acres often results in sixteen 40-acre parcels.

We have a lot of 40-acre parcels in Colorado, and in Archuleta County. Some of them are “tree farms.” Many are not; the owners instead run cattle to retain their agricultural property tax exemptions.

During my interviews with J.R. Ford, of Renewable Forest Energy, I learned that his company’s business model has been based on “treating” about 1,200 acres each year, in order to run a profitable operation. The “treatment” removes the smaller, less healthy trees to leave the acreage in what forestry scientists currently assume is a healthier, more sustainable state.

What we do with that “biomass” is still a subject of exploration.

When we look at the numbers, we see that a (presumably profitable) biomass operation is capable of treating thirty “40-acre tree farms” each year. (30 x 40 acres = 1,200 acres.) I have no idea how many tree farms we have in Archuleta County, so I can’t even guess whether a biomass approach would be helpful or profitable, for those separate properties. Most of the acreage treated by Renewable Forest Energy over the past couple of years has been U.S. Forest Service lands.

As we toured the Renewable Forest Energy sawmill, and the site of a proposed biochar facility, I asked Mr. Ford if he thought there was enough opportunity in the “sustainable forest treatment” business to justify another, similar sawmill/biochar operation in Archuleta County. He assumed another such business would be feasible, given the amount of untreated forest in the county.

So, how did he learn the wood products business? Out of a book?

J.R. Ford:

“We learned it the hard way. That’s been part of the problem — there’s no one left around who knows the sawmill business.”

Nor, presumably, the biochar business.

“Nobody around. So I get on the phone and talk to people in Wisconsin or Michigan or somewhere like that. This mill is set up like one you would find in Pennsylvania or Ohio or Wisconsin; you see a lot of mills like this. What I did was, I got on a plane and went… spent a few weeks in Pennsylvania and Ohio…”

And took notes?

“Yeah, I took notes, and photographs. And you make connections with different people that you connect with, so you call and ask them questions.

“Once you get a couple of people trained, who know what they’re doing, you just have to learn from each other.”

The sawmill now has more orders for green (undried) lumber than they can easily fill, but they are not planning on resting on their laurels. The proposed biochar gasifier will be designed to include a kiln, for drying lumber, and then… perhaps a planer mill is in the company’s future, for creating finished dimensional lumber.

“Or what we’d really like to do, is to see someone else put in their own planer mill, and then we could sell them the dried material, and let them plane it and sell it.

“You can only do so many things…”

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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.