Large-scale forest restoration in northern Arizona is behind schedule. One of the major hurdles is that there are very few places for low-value logs and slash to go once it’s cut. It’s known as the “biomass bottleneck,” but a new pilot program spearheaded by Northern Arizona University’s Ecological Restoration Institute aims to tap wood markets on the other side of the globe, and hopefully reduce the chances catastrophic wildfire back home. KNAU’s Ryan Heinsius reports.
Jeff Halbrook, a research associate with ERI, takes me on a tour of what’s fondly known as the chip-and-ship pilot project at Camp Navajo near Bellemont.
“It’s all little stuff, down to like a three-inch knop or so,” he says.
A huge mechanical claw scoops up several ponderosa pine logs and feeds them into an industrial chipper. Thousands of wood chunks are blasted into a large shipping container.
“It goes anywhere from one to four to three, up to seven small ones can just kind throw in that little jaws there,” he says.
The logs were recently cut from the Coconino National Forest near Flagstaff. A crew of six has been working for days to pack the containers as tightly as possible with the shredded chips.
“So, they’re finished with that one and then they’ll back around here and start filling this first container, and then it’s kind of like a little dance out there,” Halbrook says.
When it’s stuffed with about 40,000 pounds of wood, another machine hoists the container onto a nearby railcar. In about two weeks, nearly 60 containers will arrive at a port in South Korea.
“They primarily use these wood chips for production of energy. Moving away from the fossil-based energy operation in South Korea,” says NAU forestry professor Han-Sup Han.
He’s hopeful the chip-and-ship program could bypass the main roadblock to large-scale forest restoration in the region known as the “biomass bottleneck.”
“This material is so small and it has so low value, as far as hauling this material to the market, it economically is unfeasible … To be able to complete the restoration of the operation, you need to move that out of the forest,” he says.
When branches and small-diameter logs linger in the woods, it slows down thinning projects like the Four Forest Restoration Initiative. Experts say a lack of domestic markets is mostly to blame. Biomass-produced energy is expensive and there just aren’t many facilities in the U.S. Plus, the material can be sold in Asia for more than double what it fetches domestically. That’s why local forest managers started looking overseas for a solution.
“As these markets develop and these techniques are refined, we’re able to do more acres, and we’re way behind the eight ball on our ability to manage acres,” says Rich Van Demark, a forester with the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management.
“As soon as we can build to that capacity with all the pieces that it takes, that’ll get us to that level of management that we need to match up to our forest needs … But at least it’s going in the right direction,” he says.
4FRI managers eventually want to treat 50,000 acres a year, which would produce a million-and-a-half tons of biomass annually. The chip-and-ship program could export a third of that by sending hundreds of shipping containers to Asia for at least the next decade.
The idea has strong bipartisan political support. Democratic U.S. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema recently met with the program’s managers in a treated forest in Flagstaff. Amy Waltz, director of science delivery at ERI, showed her a core sample from a ponderosa pine.
“And so, we’ll age this. This is actually a pretty young tree over here. And, I would just do it: 10, 20, 30, 40—this is probably about a 50-to-60-year-old tree,” says Waltz.
“Congress needs to just bite the bullet and do smart financial investment and prevention so we can reduce our overall expense on the emergency cleanup … Because we will continue to have those dangerous wildfires until we finish this work of healthy prevention,” Sinema says.
Sinema and Arizona Republican Senator Martha McSally recently introduced a bill that would speed up the pace of 4FRI. If it passes it would make it a lot more likely that the chip-and-ship program would be part of the efforts to make northern Arizona’s forests most resilient to wildfire.