Utah conference explores future of biomass energy from forest thinning projects in beetle-hit Intermountain West as way to aid forest recovery, reduce wildfire risk

LOS ANGELES , October 18, 2011 () – In Utah, the state and federal governments are creating pilot projects to drastically thin the pinyon pine and juniper forests to control the pine-beetle infestation by creating a wood bioenergy industry, The Salt Lake Tribune reported Oct. 14.

Academics, business experts and U.S. Energy Department scientists were slated to discuss the possibilities Oct. 18-19 at a conference called “Restoring the West: Sustaining Forests, Woodlands and Communities through Biomass Use.”

Conservationists were not all pleased with the idea of the Utah State University conference but growth in woodchips for energy could create jobs, reported The Salt Lake Tribune.

Government contractor Lance Lindbloom's company, Bloomin Ranch Service, was hired to thin junipers and reduce fire hazards for a pilot project along an interstate near Beaver, Utah, from about 300 trees per acre to 45 or 50. Up to 40 tons of woodchip thinnings are shipped to the U.S. Department of Energy's Idaho National laboratory for fuel testing.

The Bureau of Land Management granted the contract and the Forest Service decided to try the thinning in the Beaver area because clearance was already granted for a large harvesting project, said BLM forester Doug Page, The Salt Lake Tribune reported.

The government pays about US$500 per acre to thin the forest in the region, where former practice was for complete wildfire suppression.

The Intermountain West has more than 40 million acres attacked by pine beetles since 1997. Profits are too low to lead loggers to thin enough of those acres but a wood biomass market may raise interest enough, The Salt Lake Tribune reported.

Some conservationists are concerned that designated roadless areas could be threatened or that the energy thrust could lead to profiting from harvesting on public lands.

Kirk Robinson, executive director of the Western Wildlife Conservancy, noted that the Oregon-based National Center for Conservation Science & Policy said in a 2010 report that logging would likely not work against a climate-change-driven beetle epidemic.

The primary source of this article is The Salt Lake Tribune, Salt Lake City, Utah, on Oct. 14, 2011.

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