WHITE MOUNTAINS — Poor little Nell is tied to the railroad tracks and the wildfire freight train is barreling down on her, spewing sparks out the stack.
But is that Dudley Do Right, riding to the rescue?
Oh, wait – that’s the Salt River Project – determined to save faltering forest thinning efforts in Arizona, even if it means paying a little more for electricity.
At least, Bruce Hallin, SRP Director of Water Rights and Contracts says the public utility recognizes the deep link between the watershed and wildfires and so will do whatever it takes to keep forest thinning efforts alive.
“There’s a lot going on behind the scenes. Essentially, we’re willing to pay for biomass if that’s what it takes. When it comes to investing money from SRP’s perspective, we want to make sure we invest in whatever is the best technology that will get the most acres thinned. If that’s biomass power, yeah, we’ll probably do that.”
The declaration from a top SRP officials offers a glimmer of hope for forest thinning efforts and the survival of the existing 28 megawatt biomass electrical plant in Snowflake operat-d by NovoPower.
Earlier this year, the Arizona Corporation Commission dashed once-high hopes for future thinning efforts when it decided on a 3-2 vote to not mandate Arizona Public Service and other utilities it regulates to buy at least 90 megawatts of power produced by burning wood scraps from thinning projects.
That vote seemed to have crippled forest thinning efforts, by eliminating the best current market for the saplings, wood scraps and brush that make up about half of the material removed to thin the overgrown, wildfire prone forests of Northern Arizona. The forest now has 800 or 1,000 trees per acres, while the fire-adapted, pre-settlement forest had more like 50 trees per acre, according to numerous studies.
NovoPower is currently the only biomass-fueled electrical power plant in Arizona. It is sustained by contracts with SRP and APS to buy the power it generates. The two giant utilities entered into the contract with NovoPower as a result of a corporation commission mandate to buy electricity generated from renewable sources. At that time, burning biomass was much cheaper than generating electricity from wind and solar. But advances in solar technology have reversed that advantage, which means APS and SRP both have a financial incentive not to renew their current contracts with NovoPower.
If that happens, NovoPower would likely shut down by 2024, eliminating the only existing market for biomass from wood scraps in Arizona. That would likely cause the collapse of already tenuous forest thinning efforts in the Coconino, Kaibab, Apache-Sitgreaves and Tonto forests – the core area of the sputtering 4-Forests Restoration Initiative.
The ACC vote rejected imposing a biomass mandate, although an APS study showed that if converted to biomass, the coal-burning Cholla power plant could generate some 60 megawatts of electricity annually from burning wood scraps. When combined with the output of NovoPower, the mandate would have created a market for biomass that would have supported the thinning of 50,000 acres annually – the target pace for 4FRI.
Even at 50,000 acres annually, it would take about 20 years to thin the more than 2 million acres of fire-prone, overgrown forest in the 4FRI project area.
APS issued a non-committal statement saying “We continue to participate in forest restoration efforts through our own vegetation management program and through our existing contract with the Novo Power Plant, which has enabled the thinning of thousands of acres of forest in northern Arizona. Forest restoration is a statewide problem that deserves a statewide solution. We look forward to work with stakeholders on a solution.”
Since then, APS has developed big problems in its relationship with the commission, which sets its rates. APS CEO Donald Brant stepped down, in a swirl of controversy including the death of several customers whose power was cut off in the heat of the summer and ongoing concerns about the millions in “dark money” parent company Pinnacle West spent to elect members of the commission, as well as other state officials.
At a recent hearing, a new, narrow majority on the commission signaled it may try to crack down on Pinnacle West’s ‘dark money’ political spending. The company is also facing a federal investigation focused on campaign contributions.
Backers of 4FRI were in disarray after the corporation commission rejected a year-long lobbying effort to impose a biomass mandate. After the commission vote, APS expressed support for thinning efforts – but pointedly refused to promise to go forward with biomass plans regardless. Without an order from the commission, APS could not put the costs of converting Cholla in its rate base or recover the higher cost of biomass power, compared to natural gas or solar.
However, the publicly owned SRP provides both electricity and water to customers in the Valley. So the company’s business depends not only on selling electricity, but on providing water. Studies have shown that a high-intensity wildfire would sear the soil and dramatically increase runoff, filling reservoirs like C.C. Cragin and Roosevelt with mud.
SRP so far is the only power company to step up to do what it takes to foster forest thinning efforts.
“SRP benefits significantly from the water in the watershed – a lot of the towns that buy its power get water from the watershed and a lot of water users are getting power from SRP,” said Hallin. “We are concerned with the silting of those reservoirs prematurely should those forests burn. But it’s not just the water. The ecosystems, the local communities – all enjoy an economic benefit. So we’re willing to step up and do our share.”
Hallin said SRP will make a final decision after it looks at the industry response to the latest request for proposals (RFP) to thin some 300,000 acres of Forest Service land in the 4FRI project area.
The RFP is expected out soon, laying out the guidelines for logging projects in a project area that includes all of Rim Country and a chunk of the White Mountains.
In earlier phases of 4FRI, The Forest Service settled on a single contractor to thin some 100,000 acres, but that contractor has thinned only about 15,000 acres in the past seven years – mostly for lack of a market for the biomass.
The 4FRI project “has been stuck in neutral,” said Hallin. “We need to attract larger, better capitalized industry to get to that 50,000 acres a year goal. “We have to get the response back from industry. Allowing the market and allowing highly capitalized industry to come in and provide as more realistic, market-driven approach will get us to a more supportable place.”
Hallin said he expects NovoPower will bid on the next round of contracts.
However, NovoPower’s caught in a chicken and egg problem – or perhaps a pine cone and sapling dilemma.
Brad Worsley, president of NovoPower, has said that unless there’s an assurance there’s a market for the biomass power he can generate in coming years, there’s no point in bidding on any of the contracts in the next phase of 4FRI. Only the kind of guarantee SRP and APS have provided for the past decade made it possible for NovoPower to bid on the biomass produced by thinning projects.
But Hallin said SRP won’t let forest thinning efforts die.
“Let’s go through the (Forest Service) RFP process to understand what’s the best option for us to pursue. Until then, it’s just speculation,” said Hallin. “It’s a little early to make a commitment. We need to make an educated, business-like decision. But we need to solve this problem.”
Ok. So Nell’s still tied to the tracks.
The wildfire engine’s still speeding along.
But that does look like Dudley up on the hill, sizing up the situation.
HOLBROOK — Navajo County Supervisor Jason Whiting’s passionate advocacy for forest thinning and sustainable logging and cattle grazing in the rural West this year earned him a new title: Supervisor of the Year.
The Coalition of Arizona-New Mexico Counties conferred the honor at the most recent Navajo County Board of Supervisor’s meeting.
Whiting has played a key role in advocating for the 4-Forests Restoration Initiative, the White Mountains Stewardship program and other efforts to revive the timber industry in Arizona to help thin the badly overgrown forests. He fears local communities may suffer the same fate as Paradise, California, which burned to the ground last year in a wildfire disaster that killed 85 people.
Whiting led the ultimately unsuccessful lobbying effort by the Eastern Arizona Counties Association aimed at convincing the Arizona Corporation Commission to require utilities it regulates to buy up to 90 megawatts of energy annually generated from burning biomass.
Nonetheless, he said the two-state honor came as a surprise. He initially assumed the New Mexico supervisor who told him about it was teasing him.
“Although I appreciate the honor, I am undeserving,” he said.
On the other hand, he said rural counties must remain proactive, since they’re often economic hostages of the federal government.
“Unlike some of the larger cities, we deal with the federal government on a daily basis. That’s why we have to unite with others to provide solutions,” he said.
The other supervisors at the meeting lauded Whiting’s efforts.
“Jason’s a very outgoing person,” said Supervisor Lee Jack whose district mostly covers the Navajo Reservation. “He’s also a jokester.”
County Manager Glenn Kephart said, “I suspect only his wife really knows how hard he works on these issues.”
Board Chairwoman Dawnafe Whitesinger, whose district mostly encompasses the White Mountain Apache Reservation, said, “I agree, this should be awarded. It wasn’t a mistake,” she added, prompting a laugh.
After the meeting, Whiting talked about the status of the efforts to keep forest thinning efforts alive – which he said depends critically burning biomass from thinning projects to generate electricity. He and others continue to lobby the Corporation Commission to revisit its decision not to impose a mandate. Burning biomass costs about 50 percent more than solar or natural gas, which means utilities like Arizona Public Service (APS) have no financial incentive to contract for biomass without a regulatory mandate.
Without such a mandate, NovoPower in Snowflake could shut down in the next couple of years – crippling already faltering forest thinning efforts, said Whiting.
“We’ve been thinning 8,000 acres a year (in the White Mountains) and had ramped that up to about 16,000 acres a year. But we’re still way behind – since 4FRI is supposed to thin 50,000 acres a year. If NovoPower shuts down, we won’t even be able to thin 8,000 acres.”
He said rural representatives must convince urban lawmakers and officials that the watersheds that sustain them depend on expanding biomass power generation and restoration-based logging operations in the rural areas.
The cost savings in watershed production, infrastructure like power lines running through the forest, firefighting costs and the survival of rural communities adds up to far more than the excess cost of burning biomass.
“We have to say, ‘I’m willing to spend a dime to make a dollar,” concluded the supervisor of the year.
Peter Aleshire covers county government and other topics for the Independent. He is the former editor of the Payson Roundup. Reach him at email@example.com
GILA COUNTY — A couple who are suspects in a Tucson murder that escaped a prison transport van on August 26 were captured Wednesday night in the Tonto Basin.
Blane and Susan Barksdale, whom local authorities had been searching for in Navajo and Apache counties for the past 16 days, were found hiding out in a residence near Punkin Center.
The US Marshals Service held a press conference at 11 a.m. on Thursday to offer some details to the public on the capture of the two fugitives. Officers from the US Marshals Service, Arizona Department of Public Safety, the FBI and Navajo and Gila County Sheriff’s and Tucson Police Department were present at the press conference to discuss the cooperative effort that led to the capture of the Barksdales.
The search for the couple had focused for much of the past 16 days on the remote area between Snowflake and Concho, as law enforcement followed up on tips and leads from the public, but all led to a dead-end until late Tuesday.
“I couldn’t tell you how many times we drove across the county,” said NCSO Chief Deputy Randy Moffit said of the search, which included agents from the US Marshals Service who worked with NCSO.
But on Tuesday, a tip phoned into the US Marshals by a member of the public urged them to focus on Punkin Center, in Gila County. The tip advised that the couple might be staying with an individual who was on parole for a drug trafficking offense, although the caller was not sure, officials said.
“When the operation moved towards Phoenix, we stayed in the hub with them … we just kept working with the Marshals and sent our Major Crimes Apprehension Team (MCAT) force out to work with them,” said Sheriff Clouse in a telephone interview Thursday morning.
The tip led to an operation Wednesday evening to surround a rural property with a modular home and several trailers. At least 50 officers from several agencies participated, include members of the Navajo County Major Crimes Apprehension Team. DPS offered air support with choppers hovering over the property.
The occupants of the house were advised to give themselves up. The unidentified property owner surrendered first, followed by Susan Barksdale, and finally Blane Barksdale.
As officers approached Blane Barksdale, 56, he is said to have become belligerent and was Tased and shot in the leg with a bean bag to subdue him.
The Barksdales are charged with a federal offense — unlawful flight to avoid prosecution. They were scheduled to appear in federal court yesterday, where those charges would be dropped, and the couple would be turned over to the Tucson Police Department to face murder charges.
Officials said the investigation was ongoing, and more details would be released at a later time.
A long strange trip
The fugitives from justice escaped private company security guards in Blanding, Utah Aug. 26 while the guards were transporting them from Henrietta, New York, to Tucson as suspects in the first degree murder of 72-year-old Tucson resident Frank Bligh. Reports indicate the Barksdales were able to subdue their unarmed guards after Susan, 59, feigned nausea while the van was in Blanding, Utah.
Reportedly, they tied up the guards and one other prisoner with shoelaces and took possession of the van. The Barksdales then allegedly drove to Vernon where a friend there provided them with a red GMC pickup truck. They abandoned the van with their hostages unhurt.
The Barksdales may have been assisted by members of the white supremacist group, the Aryan Brotherhood, or perhaps the Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang, but this has not been confirmed.
Seventy-two-year-old Frank Bligh disappeared in April. Bligh’s home was set on fire, and his body has not been found. The Barksdales may have stolen as many as 100 guns from the residence. Brent Mallard, a nephew of Blane Barksdale, is being held in connection with the incident.
Blane Barksdale was placed on the 15 Most Wanted List on Monday, and a reward totaling $35,000 was offered for the arrest of the couple. Whether the reward led to their capture is unclear.
SHOW LOW — Javier Guadalupe Najera Jr., a 22-year-old local man, is in jail on suspicion of arson after he allegedly torched his family’s home in the 8500 block of Quail Run. The home is a complete loss.
When Navajo County Sheriff’s Office deputies arrived at the home around 8:15 a.m. Sunday, Sept. 8, it was reportedly completely engulfed in flames forcing firefighters to fight it defensively.
A press release from NCSO Sheriff David Clouse stated that Najera Jr. was arrested after he allegedly admitted setting the fire with gasoline. According to witnesses, he poured onto the porch of the home after an argument with family members. It is not known what the argument was about.
Clouse said after Najera was detained for questioning he allegedly admitted torching the home saying he was depressed due to family issues. Clouse said deputies also learned Najera had allegedly been drinking alcohol and using drugs just before setting the house on fire.
Authorities did not say if anyone was injured in the fire.
A check of the Navajo County Jail inmate housing report for Tuesday, Sept. 10, showed Najera still in custody in Holbrook.