On a Sierra Nevada Conservancy (SNC) Board tour on Sept. 4 of forest-thinning projects in northeast Calaveras County, local advocates expressed that subsisting on grants alone to fund current forest management practices for fire prevention is unsustainable.
Support in kick-starting a biomass industry that could build up a local workforce, restore forests and protect communities and watersheds from wildfire for years to come, according to Steve Wilensky, founder of Calaveras Healthy Impact Product Solutions (CHIPS), a local nonprofit that provides fuel reduction and prescribed burning services on private and U.S. Forest Service land. Funded in part through master stewardship agreements with multiple Forest Service districts, the organization has provided jobs for youths and members of local indigenous Native American communities, including the Hung A Lel Ti – a Washoe community situated in Woodfords in Alpine County.
In the wake of devastating wildfires over the past few years, state funding has been increasingly funnelled into forest-thinning efforts. Local volunteers with the Calaveras-Amador Forestry Team have applied for and been awarded numerous SNC grants in the past few years, with CHIPS as the fiscal sponsor.
Wilensky and others say the surplus of small trees and shrubs from fuels reduction projects in Calaveras County could be fed into a cogeneration power plant for energy production. The plant would gasify wood chips to power an internal combustion engine that would generate electricity.
“We’re in a restoration effort and we’re trying to get value-added business so we can actually sustain ourselves economically,” Wilensky told SNC board members, Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) officials and others at the site of a former lumber mill in Wilseyville.
CHIPS has been planning to build a biomass power plant at the location for more than a decade.
“We don’t want to be applying for grants,” Wilensky said. “We don’t think that’s a way to live, we think that’s a way to start something.”
Wilensky has said in the past that the proposed biomass plant will generate enough energy to power the surrounding Blue Mountain communities of Glencoe, Rail Road Flat, West Point and Wilseyville, and potentially secure jobs for 65 to 85 people.
The nonprofit has already reached a 20-year power purchase agreement with Pacific Gas & Electric Co., but uncertainty regarding the company’s bankruptcy has left investors hesitant to buy into the approximately $25 million project, Wilensky said.
Wilensky said he has suggested that East Bay Municipal Utility District customers in the bay area invest in forest restoration efforts upstream that could protect their water supply from wildfire. Supporting a biomass plant’s construction would be one way they could do that, according to Wilensky. Although rate increases of 10 cents per month could generate millions of dollars in funding in just a few years, Wilenksy’s advocacy efforts at the district’s board meetings haven’t been successful, he said.
“Why are we spending so much money in California on one piece of what needs to be a more holistic approach?” Wilensky asked. “Where is the industry to sustain it, and where is the local benefit that can allow people around here who know the forest better and care about their communities in a deep and abiding way (to be involved)? Why not make an investment in that?”
Logging as fire prevention?
At a state and national level, the role of logging in fire prevention is up for debate, with a spectrum of opinions ranging from leaving the forest untouched to rolling back environmental laws that would expedite logging on public lands.
Environmental groups such as the John Muir Project, a project of Earth Island Institute, argue that home hardening – building or outfitting with ember-resistant materials, as well as any other precaution taken to mitigate wildfire risks around the home – should be prioritized, along with evacuation planning and developing early warning systems.
In May, Gov. Gavin Newsom turned down a bill that would have created a $1 billion fund to provide Californians in high-risk fire areas with rebates and low-cost loans to pay for retrofits, despite his vocal support of home hardening, according to a May 9 Sacramento Bee report.
Citing a 2014 study, Dr. Chad Hanson, forest and fire ecologist and founder of the John Muir Project, said in a Sept. 6 phone interview that there are no additional benefits to protecting homes beyond the defensible space requirements of 100 feet. Defensible space refers to removing grasses, twigs, dry needles, shrubs and limbing and in some cases, removal of small trees around the home, Hanson said.
He said that fuel breaks are not consistently effective in slowing wildland fire, and can sometimes increase the rate of spread, since they remove canopy cover and consequently open up the forest floor, thereby creating hotter and drier conditions. Trees can act as wind barriers, so when they are removed, the embers that often carry high-intensity fires forward can fly right over fuel breaks, Hanson added.
This is because fires are driven dominantly by weather and climate, not fuels, he said.
Biomass plants, according to Hanson, are not a sustainable option, as they produce a higher rate of carbon emissions than coal plants.
Of those involved in forest management in Calaveras County, however, a wide array of conservation groups, firefighters and foresters agree that some amount of selective thinning – logging understory trees (less than 12 inches in diameter) – can make a difference in slowing a wildfire and providing a safe staging area for firefighters as they work to keep a blaze down.
“It is not reasonable that the Forest Service or Cal Fire should only focus on doing (wildland urban interface) projects directly around homes and communities,” said John Buckley, executive director of the Twain Harte-based Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center (CSERC). “In many situations, if a fire is burning up out of a river canyon, by the time it gets upslope to where it bumps into Arnold, Dorrington or Murphys, it has so much momentum that it can overwhelm well-designed, well-implemented reduction measures (around the home).”
Based on this perspective, Buckley and others argue that mechanical forest management and prescribed burning would save carbon emissions in the long run, since it would give firefighters leverage in preventing small, manageable wildfires from flaring up to become devastating high-acreage blazes.
Thus, the emissions from a biomass plant would be dramatically less than that of what a high-acreage wildfire would have emitted, according to Buckley.
“To be sustainable, restorative and put people back to work is what CHIPS is about. This is the centerpiece of it, despite the fallow nature of its look,” Wilensky said at the CHIPS site, gesturing toward enormous mounds of wood chips and stacks of logs on the site of the prospective biomass plant.
In response to CHIPS’ plans for a biomass energy facility and creating a local economy based on forest restoration and fire protection, Susana Reyes, a current SNC board member and former Sierra Club board member provided the following comment to the Enterprise via email on Sept. 10: “Biomass energy can make sense when the fuel source is sustainable and ecologically sound, and when the biomass plant makes use of the latest technology to minimize climate impact. I’m hopeful that the CHIPS project will live up to its promise and serve as a model for the region.”