An hour before the sun rises over Blantyre, Malawi, Feligasi Dyeratu prepares for a day of wood gathering. Her 12-year-old daughter, Gertrude, is packing the small bundle of food that will sustain the two of them until they return before dark.
Feligasi and Gertrude will leave the other four children in the care of her 9-year-old son, Idan, as they begin their trek up Mount Michiru, Malawi’s highest mountain at 1400 meters. It is 6 kilometers from the small village and it is the only source of firewood available to Feligasi and her family. Gertrude replaced her father, Molan, on the trek after he died a year earlier from pneumonia.
Each time they return to Mount Michiru, they must search more terrain in order to find the twigs, tree limbs, and scrub that constitutes their meager supply of firewood. Sometime within the next few years, they will have to find another source as Michiru will become bare of anything of value.
While Feligasi and Gertrude struggle to survive in such extreme conditions, we here in Payson are surrounded by some 400,000 acres of forest land in Tonto National Forest alone. Like many of the abundant resources we enjoy, we often take the forest for granted.
Tonto Forest, like many of Arizona’s other forests, is facing a crisis. Not because of dwindling supplies of biomass such as the environs of Mount Michiru are facing, but because of the exact opposite. It is overburden and unhealthy.
In an attempt to protect the forest of Arizona, and elsewhere in the U.S., by preventing forest fires, we have placed them in great danger; a predicament that the Forest Service is currently working to resolve.
Instead of becoming a land where wood is becoming scarce and coveted, the forests here are over dense with too many trees and too much grown cover. This has greatly impacted the forest by altering the natural processes that should occur. Too many trees and too much ground cover deplete the water table and leave many small streams and creeks dry. Some have not seen water flowing in them since the time when Native Americans used the water for processing their food supplies along their banks. When forest fires occur today, they burn thousands to hundreds of thousands of acres, instead of a few hundred.
The thinning operations currently conducted by the Forest Service are alleviating the impact to a degree and are to be appreciated. They have a definitive drawback, however: burning the slash and debris left by thinning is the primary means by which the Forest Service can effectively deal with it. And this leads to a great deal of smoke and associated issues.
But something more important occurs. Large quantities of biomass are lost in the burning; biomass that Feligasi and Gertrude would consider a godsend. Imagine the two of them encountering stack after stack of tree limbs, branches, and other woody plants lying about as far as they could see. Something anyone can encounter at will here in our forest.
The Forest Service has, on occasion, invited companies and individuals access to this leftover material from thinning, but to no avail. They are uninterested because this type of biomass has little or no economic value. And so, the Forest Service must resort to burning all of it.
It doesn’t have to be that way, however. That biomass represents an abundance of energy in the form of power — power to heat buildings and power to provide electricity. In some instances, the material would still be burned, but in a controlled and managed manner. At a local level it is possible to utilize this biomass, but it will take a local effort to make it happen. It wouldn’t be easy and likely not exceedingly profitable, but it is doable. The technology exists and is being applied in other rural parts of the U.S. The only thing necessary is the will to make it happen here in our back yard.