By BARBARA COYNER
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.