Wildfire potential spurs equipment trials - Over 70 million acres of forests need to be thinned, but no mills left to process the logs


For the Capital Press
June 16, 2002

IDAHO CITY, Idaho - In southwest Idaho, the forests are already tinder dry and it’s accepted fact that a huge wildfire could torch the landscape any day.

That’s why Idaho City District Ranger Dick Markley gave his blessing to a two-day showcase of mechanized equipment designed to thin dense, dry Ponderosa pine forests in the area.

“Here’s the problem that nobody seems to be taking seriously,” said Keith Coulter, a Philomath, Ore., logging contractor and one of the event organizers, which was largely funded by the National Fire Plan.

Over 70 million acres of forests need to be thinned, he said, “yet in a lot of areas, there aren’t any mills left to process the logs. What do we do with all that material?”

Of the 170 people attending the Idaho City equipment demonstration, many were asking similar questions.

The governors of Idaho, Oregon, Washington and Wyoming had stood at the same site just days earlier, pondering how forest thinning bills will get paid in the absence of commodity income such as sawlogs, wood pulp or chips.

“At present, the small diameter trees we remove are sold for firewood at best,” said Markley, as a variety of chippers and mulchers worked the demonstration site.

“The fast-growing, small diameter pines have not produced good quality lumber, and access problems limit the potential for economical chip production.”

According to Idaho City residents, area logging is essentially on life support, and most loggers say they predicted some of the problems. The nearest mills still functioning are hours away. Plus, the costs of transporting chips or hog fuel are prohibitive.

University of Idaho timber harvesting and forest engineering specialist Han-Sup Han pointed to the downturn in the timber industry and supporting rural infrastructure as real problems beyond mere economics.

“We need to include all the stakeholders interested in solving the puzzle of what to do with these forest materials, from stump to product. Studies are showing that letting all that biomass just decompose on the forest floor actually adds more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than burning it.”

With a variety of high-tech machines able to mulch and chip acres of dense forests at a time, Markley and many researchers agree that mechanization is generally the only way to get at the problem. So-called small-scale “boutique” logging equipment is just not equal to the massive chore.

That would create more work for the dwindling number of loggers still in business, but equipment outlays might be beyond the pocketbooks of many.

The question comes back to what to do with all the biomass. Markley would love to see the forest residue become electrical power for his town of Idaho City.

“One logging contractor attending the trials is interested in harvesting and converting small diameter trees and brush into chips for biomass power generation, but he needs assurance of an eight to ten-year supply of material in order to get the financing to make his operation economical,” said Markley.

He also invited four portable sawmill vendors to the equipment demonstration to show the potential for making dimensional lumber in smaller quantities.

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