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Feds drag feet on biomass project

On Nov. 6, 2011, a decision was supposed to be made by the U.S. Forest Service that had the potential to be a breakthrough for forest health and renewable energy in Pagosa Country.

On that date, the USFS was supposed to decide whether or not it had the budgeted funds to move ahead with the Pagosa Area Biomass Long-term Stewardship Contract.

The contract would be for 10 years and cover approximately 50,000 acres and 1 to 1.5 million green tons of excess trees. According to the Forest Service description of the project, the main purpose, “is to reduce hazardous fuels that increase wildland fire risk to communities and infrastructure and promote restoration of the landscape by thinning overly dense stands and removing disturbance-susceptible species.”

If the contract were awarded to Pagosa businessman J.R. Ford’s Renewable Forest Energy LLC, those millions of green tons of biomass would be gasified and used to create energy, renewable energy.

However, when Nov. 6 of last year came, the contracting officer called each of the contractors who had submitted a bid (the number of bidders and their names is classified information). The Forest Service asked if each contractor would grant a 60-day extension. According to Ford, the reason the USFS gave was that the agency needed time to work on its budget.

Ford, and presumably the other contractors, assented to the Forest Service request and granted the 60-day extension. The 60 days passed, and Jan. 6 of this year came. The Forest Service called Ford and again asked for a 60-day extension. The reason was the same: the USFS needed more time to work on the budget.

Ford assented to the extension.

The 60 days passed, and March 6 came and went. Ford did not receive a phone call.

“I called and asked if they wanted an extension,” Ford said. The response he got, Ford said, was that the Forest Service was still working on the regional budget (Region 2 comprising forests and grasslands in Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and eastern Wyoming). No specific date was given to Ford concerning when an answer would be forthcoming. He was told there might be an answer by the end of March.

“I can only postpone for so long,” Ford said. “To go forward, I’d need to buy new equipment, and I can’t order the equipment or begin to hire until I have a commitment.”

If Ford is awarded the contract, he anticipates hiring 30 new employees.

According to San Juan Forest Supervisor Mark Stiles, San Juan National Forest did not receive its budget until last Friday. The budgets were due Oct. 1.

“We’re trying to digest the budget right now,” Stiles said. Though nothing is certain, Stiles expects that, by Friday, he will know whether or not the district will be able to secure funding for the Pagosa Area Biomass Long-term Stewardship Contract. However, that is just securing the funding, giving the go-ahead to move forward with the stewardship contract. This does not mean a contractor will be chosen.

Stewardship contracts were originally allowed by Congress in 1998. This allowed the Forest Service to exchange goods for services. So, ideally, what would happen is, instead of a traditional timber sale, where a party bids and ultimately pays the Forest Service to remove trees, an area in need of forest thinning would be marked by the Forest Service and a contractor would remove the trees. The cost of service and the cost of product (trees) would be equal; no money would be exchanged between the USFS and the contractor.

But the situation has changed, and the ideal is no longer achievable, thus the need for budgeted funds to pay the contractor.

Pagosa Ranger District Forester Steve Hartvigsen said the value of timber has dropped in recent years with the housing market crash. “The cost of thinning and removing (trees) is far greater than the derived value of the timber products removed,” Hartvigsen said.

While Hartvigsen could not disclose the dollar amount the district needed to secure in order to move forward with the contract, he did say it was under $5 million for the entire 10-year duration.

A similar project, the Front Range Long-term Stewardship Contract (on Colorado’s Front Range), according to Hartvigsen, has costs which range from $700 to $1200 per acre. The Pagosa Biomass contract, he said, would be significantly less.

If funding is not secured for this year, Hartvigsen said that most likely the Forest Service would contact each of the bidding contractors, explain that funding was not secured for this year but it might be for next year. However, for a local businessman like Ford, an extension of one year may be too long.

lindsey@pagosasun.com

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