ST. JOHNS – This year’s Apache and Navajo Counties Mayors and Councilmembers meeting occurred in St. Johns on October 17 at the St. Johns City Hall. Representatives from Show Low, Pinetop-Lakeside, Winslow, Holbrook and St. Johns, as well as Rochelle Lacapa, representing Rep. Tom O’Halleran’s office, were all in attendance this year.
The meeting is a time when cities from Apache and Navajo counties can come together and discuss what is new in their areas and collaborate on issues that affect themselves and other cities, and where officials can tackle big subjects, such as this year’s major topic: Forest Restoration programs and what it may mean for the White Mountains.
Paul Watson, the Navajo County Assistant Manager and Economic Development Director, led the presentation on the Forest Service’s Four Forest Restoration Initiative (4FRI), developments that have occurred up to this point and how Requests for Proposals (RFP) will work for this second phase of mechanical thinning efforts. Discussion included what kinds of proposals would be best for this new increase in acreage – 50,000 acres a year – with biomass energy projects being considered the most viable option to handle the increase in acreage.
Currently, NovoPower is the only biomass power plant in the state.
“There is already existing industry that’s doing about 15 to 18k acres a year,” Watson explained. But the concern from the group who put together the RFP is that they didn’t want to necessarily have somebody come in and take that and all the existing industry go away. There is some effort in this RFP to give points towards forming partnerships.”
“They’re not mandating that the biomass be removed, but they are going to look at extra points towards the award based on the amount of biomass that you remove,” Watson said. The Forest Service is accepting proposals until December 16, and they are awarding extra points for applicants who will clear the biomass rather than leave it on the ground. Under 50% of bio-mass removal, for example, will be looked upon as unsatisfactory, 50-69% as “marginal,” 70-79% as “satisfactory,”,80-89% as “very good” and 90-99% as “exceptional.”
“That’s the biggest challenge in this whole thing. When you look at doing a total of 50k acres a year, which is what the Forest Service goal is, right now we do about 15 to 18k,” Watson explained. “That amount of acreage produces all the biomass that the existing NovoPower in Snowflake can handle. And they do about 30 megawatts. So, when you consider this additional, it’s somewhere between 50 and 60 megawatts of power in additional biomass that’s going to be produced.”
Officials for Navajo county have investigated the potential for biofuel operations but found that there were no operations to this level of scale. Instead, officials spoke with APS to convert one of their units at the Cholla power plant from coal to biomass. This conversion would generate between 50 to 60 megawatts of power, which perfectly fits the needs of the increased biomass being produced from forest thinning efforts. But the Arizona Corporation Commission declined to mandate the use of biomass as part of the state’s remewable energy profile earlier this year, and APS has not stated that they plan to move forward with conversion.the
“There’s a lot of jockeying going on, different individuals, contractors,” Watson said of the current situation. The future of forest thinning is still unknown as conferences and discussions amongst industry professionals continue and RFP’s are being submitted.
“There is an individual representing an OSB (oriented strand board) operation that’s looking to come in,” Watson said, addressing some rumors he knew existed about possible proposals for the second stage. “If they bid, the understanding from the existing industry, for the most part, is they will take everything except for the slash. Meaning that a lot of the existing industry is going to have to either find wood elsewhere, maybe from the reservation [or] maybe from other sources, or they’re going to struggle.”
Lynn Krigbaum, a councilmember for Pinetop-Lakeside, asked Watson on whether it was true that the forest would not be suitable to such an industry. “I remember hearing at one of those 4FRI meetings that Ponderosa pine is not suitable for OSB,” Krigbaum said.
“What I am understanding is, it’s not the best, but when you put it together in fiber strands like that, in that kind of wood, it’s fine.” Watson answered.
“It’ll be interesting. There is a lot of things at play,” Watson said of the process and the many possibilities going forward for the acreage.
Winning proposals for the 4FRI program will not be awarded until April of next year.
Amber Shepard is an local journalist covering municipal governments and other Apache County topics.