Rim Country’s survival depends on a plan to turn millions of tons of saplings and brush into electricity, Gila County Supervisor Tommie Martin said last week in a letter to the Arizona Corporation Commission.
She said the 2002 468,000-acre Rodeo-Chediski Fire and the 2011 538,000-acre Wallow Fire demonstrated the critical danger to forested communities. The 1990 Dude Fire, which killed six firefighters, underscored the peril to Gila County.
“Since then, the risks of catastrophic landscape scale forest fires have continued to increase throughout the Southwest and in Gila County’s Rim Country in particular.”
She said such a megafire on the watershed of the C.C. Cragin Reservoir would prove a disaster that would blight the whole region’s future.
“Quite simply, if the C.C. Cragin watershed burns in a catastrophic fire and contaminates the C.C. Cragin Reservoir, there is no ready alternative to provide potable water to the Gila County northern communities,” she wrote in an April 26 letter to the Corporation Commission.
Supervisors from Greenlee and Navajo counties also wrote letters making a similar plea.
In a separate letter, Navajo County Supervisor Jason Whiting wrote, “It is not lost on the residents of my county that the town of Paradise, Calif. that was incinerated in the recent Camp Fire looked strikingly similar to the town of Pinetop-Lakeside and it is but a further reminder that at any time forested communities in Navajo County can suffer the same devastation visited upon Paradise, Calif. by the Camp Fire, which took 88 lives, destroyed 18,800 structures and cost $16.5 billion.”
Martin urged the utility regulators to follow through on a proposal to require power companies to generate at least 90 megawatts of electricity annually from small trees and slash generated by at least 50,000 acres of thinning projects annually.
Such a mandate could save the Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI) and the “abortive” effort to thin the watershed of the C.C. Cragin Reservoir, Payson’s critical source of water for the future.
APS is in the midst of a 60-day study on the economics of converting a coal-burning unit of the Cholla power plant in St. Johns to biomass. In theory, that converted plant would generate 60 megawatts of power annually.
In addition, an existing biomass plant in Snowflake generates 30 megawatts of energy annually. That plant has been the key to thinning some 50,000 acres of overgrown forest in the White Mountains in the past five years.
Martin said only a comprehensive, 90 megawatt rule by the ACC can keep the current biomass burning plant in Snowflake alive while providing a market for another plant in St. Johns. However, the St. Johns plant is too far away to economically accept biomass from the Tonto and Apache-Sitgreaves national forests.
Martin wrote, “... the fate of the Cragin Watershed Protection Project could not illustrate better what is at stake.”
Even though the Forest Service has completed the environmental analysis for the entire 64,000-acre watershed, no one bid on the first offered timber sale.
“Implementation is failing to start due to the economic uncertainty of the treatments, in part caused by the lack of predictability of biomass disposal at the Snowflake bio-electricity power plant, which is in the final years of its current Power Purchase Agreements with APS and SRP and which has already procured the fuel it needs to complete” those contracts.
She said a converted Cholla plant could process biomass from the Kaibab National Forest and western districts of the Coconino, but the long haul from Rim Country would make it uneconomical.
“It is therefore critical to the future of forest restoration in northern Gila County as well as southern Navajo and Apache counties that the Snowflake bio-electricity power plant continue to operate for the next 20 years ... regardless of whether APS convert a coal-fired unit at Cholla.”
Biomass from sapling, branches and other waste accounts for half of the material removed in a restoration thinning project. But none of the exotic technologies — like making jet fuel from wood scraps — have so far proven economically viable on a large scale.
At the moment, only turning biomass into electricity works. “The C.C. Cragin project’s so far abortive implementation illustrates the necessity of a clear disposal solution for restoration biomass. Without it, restoration treatments that are borderline economically viable to begin with, become simply economically impossible,” wrote Martin.
Navajo County Supervisor Jason Whiting wrote a similar letter, saying only biomass burning power plants offer any hope of processing the 1.5 million tons of biomass generated by clearing 50,000 acres annually. The 4FRI project originally envisioned clearing 50,000 acres annually, but the prime contractor has cleared just 15,000 acres in the five years — mostly in the area around Flagstaff.
He noted industry in the White Mountains has completed 50,000 acres of thinning projects in the past five years, processing 1.3 million tons of small diameter logs and 1 million tons of biomass — thanks to the Snowflake biomass burning power plant. Those projects have supported 190 jobs, generating $61 million in salaries and $221 million in economic activity.
Greenlee Supervisor Richard Lunt agreed in his letter to the ACC.
“Catastrophic forest fires threaten the safety of Greenlee County rural communities and their impact on recreation lands, grazing leases and watersheds directly threaten the three pillars of economic life in Greenlee County: recreation on Forest Service land, ranching and hard rock mining.”
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