Approaching critical biomass 

Bitterroot investor looks into burning trees and slash for cheap power

Gary Callihan, a third generation logger and boyhood friend of former Montana Governor Marc Racicot, sees opportunity where others see only the forest for the trees.

Callihan owns the former Darby Lumber site where he has set up shop as Forest Tech LLC. By next spring he plans to have a biomass co-generation electricity plant on the site which would produce five megawatts per hour of inexpensive electricity for about 350 days a year. That’s enough electricity to power perhaps 1,500 homes in the Darby area. And it’s a particularly valuable service in this unstable, deregulated market.

“Biomass” is organic material such as agricultural waste and forest slash that is burned to produce electricity. Callihan, with his eyes on the four national forests within a 50-mile “working circle“ of Darby, proposes to burn trees, slash from timber sales and the slowly decaying debris on the forest floor in his yet-to-be-built power generating plant.

Callihan is such a believer in the possibilities of generating electricity for local people using local materials that he traveled to Sweden and Finland recently to see what the Scandinavians have accomplished in the biomass field. He came away deeply impressed and re-energized. But to reach his goal Callihan will have to jump at least three formidable hurdles: strong resistance from the environmental community, an uncertain supply of wood and funding.

Callihan was accompanied on his Scandinavian fact-finding mission by Kevin Schreier, a grants administrator for Ravalli County and the county‘s point man in the biomass project. What the two men found there was a series of biomass generators and tree harvesters so high-tech they wouldn’t look out of place in a Star Wars movie. In a video supplied by the Finnish company Timberjack, a manufacturer of biomass harvesting machines, the methods used to get the trees from forest to generating plant is laid out simply: a rubber-tired harvester is steered through the forest not on roads, but over the biomass to be collected, then extends its boom into a small grove of trees. The operator, using a computer and Geographic Positioning System, selects a tree and slices - rather than saws - the tree off at ground level, moves it out of the grove, twists it horizontally to the ground, limbs it and cuts it into lengths. Trees and slash are chipped and molded into 1,500-pound bales which are fed into a hopper and come out the other end as megawatts of electricity. One bale of compressed wood chips produces one megawatt of electricity. There is virtually no pollution, or so they claim.

Callihan estimates that setting up one plant—complete with harvesters—will cost $10 million, tops. He proposes that Forest Tech and Ravalli County jointly build the plant with funding from the U.S. Department of Energy. Schreier says the Department of Energy has money to burn on alternative and renewable energy projects—like a biomass generating plant. The county stands to gain $722,000 in federal funds every year for 10 years by committing to the project. It is, he says, money with no federal strings attached, meaning that the county could deposit the money into its general fund checkbook, or reinvest it in the biomass generating plant.

“There are grants all over the place for energy and forest health (projects),” says Callihan.

In Callihan’s view, this is a project tailor-made for Ravalli County. The generating plant would burn trees the Forest Service wants to remove to reduce fire hazard; the feds have plenty of tax dollars to invest; the fuel would be burned in a clean-burning plant, rather than in open, air polluting slash piles; and locals would get good-paying, much-needed jobs.

“It’s community self-determination and that’s the basic premise,” says Callihan. In fact, says Schreier, there are no downsides.

Not so, says Native Forest Network’s Matthew Koehler. Burning trees for energy is inefficient and destructive, says Koehler. In Tennessee, where biomass power generating plants rely on trees harvested from corporate timberlands, biomass harvesting has turned parts of the lush Tennessee land into a moonscape. And that’s in the humid southeast, where rainfall averages 45 to 55 inches annually, compared to western Montana, which sees no more than 12 to 15 inches a year.

“The video makes very clear that they’re going in cutting down the trees and raking the forest floor clean. What results is a desert-like condition.” Koehler estimates that 300,000 to 600,000 acres of forested land would have to be harvested to provide enough fuel for a five megawatt plant to operate for 20 years.

Callihan and Schreier envision something even grander, however. They hope to see a series of small plants built in the Bitterroot Valley, supplying cheap electricity to subdivisions, neighborhoods, industrial parks and large users like hospitals and schools. The long-term project could cost as much as $100 million in tax money, and possibly much more in terms of lost public lands.

“They’re saying they want them all up and down the valley,” says Koehler. “That would require thinning 1.5 to 3.6 million acres within a 50-mile radius. You are looking at the entire (Bitterroot National) forest being logged.”

Callihan acknowledges the philosophical differences that divide him and Koehler. “There are people who believe plants should never be cut down or harvested, for religious reasons. But the fact is, the forest is overgrown and that’s why we’re having catastrophic fires.”

Koehler contends that the biomass project is based on “fire hazard hysteria” which has put “fuel reduction,” or timber harvest, on the front burner. “They’re pulling the wool over people’s eyes because they’re playing on people’s fears, especially their fears of fire.

“There are, with this co-generation facility, some individuals who stand to make millions and millions of dollars,” says Koehler. “I’m not going to name names, but there are people who stand to make a lot of money.”

Jim Fisher of Missoula is familiar with proposals to invest tax money in energy projects. During the 1970s energy crisis, he was a consultant to state and federal agencies on biomass energy conversion projects. He’s skeptical that such a large cash infusion into a relatively small project will ever yield a profitable business. “The worst scenario is someone smells free money,” he says. But he adds, “Kevin (Schreier) certainly has every reason to pursue money since Ravalli County is so underfunded.”

Fisher praises Callihan and Schreier for “doing what they had to do,” namely, visiting other biomass plants in Sweden and Finland to determine their viability. But Fisher says he too has seen Swedish forests and thinks Americans wouldn’t accept Swedish-style forest management, which has reduced wildlands to parklands.

“Do you want your forests to look like parks?” he asks. “I think a lot of people haven’t thought of that. No one has asked certain key questions yet. Will the people who own the land (to be logged) go along with it? Can he get the wood?”

Rick Flock, timber resource coordinator for the Bitterroot National Forest, has seen Callihan’s Timberjack video and agrees with Callihan that timber is a renewable resource. But he says that the Forest Service couldn’t offer Forest Tech a steady supply of timber to feed the plant, or series of plants. “We don’t do business like that.” If removal of biomass fits with Forest Service environmental objectives, like fuels reduction or forest restoration—“the things we’re doing now,” he says—then biomass removal projects would go out to bid.

Long-term contracts for biomass removal would probably be rejected because the political and environmental climate changes too rapidly to keep the Forest Service locked into decade-long contracts, Flock says. For example, an endangered species might be identified in the contract area a couple of years into the project. “Where would that put the liability of the government? We’re not a private corporation that can make decisions on a long-term basis.”

Forest Tech might have access to slash piles that would otherwise be burned, says Flock, but that would put the company in the difficult position of having to constantly seek out fuel supplies. Though the Forest Service is currently proposing salvage sales yielding as much as 280 million board feet—the largest timber sale in the nation, according to local environmental groups—the proposal will likely be challenged in federal court. Regardless of what happens with the pending salvage sale, the future of timber harvest on national forests is cloudy. Forest Tech and its potential partner, Ravalli County, could find themselves with a $10 million tax investment with little or no fuel to keep it operating.

Despite the roadblocks, Callihan is enthusiastic about the project, and he has friends in high places who feel the same. Racicot, his old boyhood pal, is a friend and advisor to President George W. Bush. So it‘s probably no coincidence that Callihan just received a letter from Bush who praised the biomass project.

“This is serious stuff,” Callihan says. “And we should take it seriously.”

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