Sounds dull, but federal contract is exciting news

Buickerood Enlarge photo


Earlier this month the U.S. Forest Service awarded a long-term stewardship contract to a Pagosa Springs business through a contract bidding process. You might ask, “A government contract – what’s the big deal?”

Promising multiple benefits for public lands and the Pagosa Springs community, the contract will prove that diverse collaboration, long-range thinking and innovation creates winning solutions.

The stewardship contract is a 10-year agreement that requires the contractor, J.R. Ford’s Pagosa Cattle Co., to remove forest products and other biomass (small-diameter trees and brush) from the San Juan National Forest. Annually between 1,000 and 2,000 acres of forested lands will be “treated” in an effort to reduce wildfire fuels and increase forest health and resilience. The project aims to restore the mixed-conifer and ponderosa pine forests (not the higher elevation spruce forests) to “pre-settlement conditions” – reducing the high stems-per-acre count that results in fire-prone dog-hair thickets. These mixed-conifer forests represent the most prevalent forest type in the Pagosa area, and their diversity supports a remarkable array of plant and animal species.

Because of the century-old and now defunct policy of suppressing all fires and a struggling forest-products industry, much of our national forest lands need just this type of restorative attention. Forest restoration reduces wildfire hazard, enhances wildlife habitat, protects municipal watersheds, supports forest product industries and improves forest health. Restoration, when done right, results in trees more resistant to disease and insect mortality – a benefit to both the human and ecological communities.

Mixed-conifer restoration doesn’t happen overnight. It requires a focused plan and the long-term resources brought through a stewardship contract and other efforts. The Upper San Juan Mixed Conifer Workgroup, a 2-year-old collaborative mix of residents, landowners, fire-protection districts, conservation groups, forest products representatives, federal and state agencies, and others, has supported the effort and identified a mix of approaches to address the poor health of much of our local forest.

A consistent challenge in fuel-reduction projects has been applying a cost-effective and practical method to remove the fuels from the forest. Some biomass must be left on the forest floor to build soil and minimize erosion, but excessive woody fuels can increase wildfire hazards.

J.R. Ford’s operation will include sophisticated equipment to cut and chip the biomass and then proceed to gasify the chips to generate electricity. The power generation facility incorporates the most advanced technology for efficiency and air quality, feeding power into the La Plata Electric Association power grid and boosting the amount of renewable energy generated locally. Also, a small-scale mill is a possibility for the project, holding the promise of an increased local supply of lumber, improving on the practice of cutting saw timber locally and hauling it hundreds of miles for milling.

Other important wins include reduced wildfire hazard and creation of good paying jobs over time. There is no doubt: Collaboration, long-range thinking and innovation pay off, ecologically and economically. That’s a big deal – and a good deal – for all.

Jimbo Buickerood is public lands coordinator for the San Juan Citizens Alliance.