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Feasibility study underway for forest health project

Many people drive through an area, take a look at the scenery, perhaps they even get out and take a nature walk or a decent hike. They breathe deep the mountain air, feel revived, and then, they leave.

However, when the mountain areas of the West have a fire season like the one experienced this year, people take a second glance and perhaps learn what those who know the land, those who work the land and run cattle, and the foresters have known all along — the forest is unhealthy.

With over 135 years of fire suppression, the forest is changing. There is a surplus of dead trees and limbs, and the timber market, with the housing market, took a dive. There are budget slashes in the Forest Service budget on both state and national levels.

But, there are efforts underway to deal with the problem of an unhealthy forest.

At the beginning of this month, the Chama Peak Landowner Alliance was awarded a $50,000 grant from the USDA-NM Rural Business Enterprise Granting program to conduct a feasibility study for a Chama Wood & Watershed Cooperative.

“The goal of the Cooperative is to bring together private agricultural landowners in the region to create an ecologically and economically viable business to utilize wood resources in a variety of forms from the Chama region in a way that promotes forest restoration, healthy wildlife populations, and a local, renewable, carbon neutral energy source,” a release from the Land Alliance stated.

The timeline for completing the feasibility study is July 1, 2012 to Dec. 31, 2012.

The ultimate purpose of this study is to find out whether or not there is a way to treat the forests in a cost-effective manner, perhaps even coming out with a sustainable business in the end. This business, for the purposes of the grant, would be based in Chama, N.M.

Cooperative chair Richard Gooding, a landowner in Archuleta County, explained that, right now, slash piles are burned. Each time, he said, he watches and is torn because a useful product could be made from the slash.

The feasibility study will look at what areas of the forest within a 100-mile radius of Chama could be cost-effectively thinned with the biomass used for some as-yet unknown product. Co-op members are not yet sure, however, how the 100 miles will be measured, whether by road miles or as the crow flies.

Last Thursday, a group of around 20 stakeholders met to discuss the prospect of this grant, what might be encompassed by, and incorporated into the feasibility study.

Among those in attendance were ranch managers from Banded Peaks Ranch and Eagle Peak Ranch, two other landowners, representatives from Region 3 of the U.S. Forest Service, from the New Mexico State Forestry, the Rio Grande National Forest and the San Juan National Forest, as well as from Eco-sphere, which will help the new co-op carry out the grant.

Steve Hartvigsen, silviculturist for the Pagosa Ranger District, was there to share with the group what he had learned, having just participated with planning and awarding of the Pagosa Area Biomass Long-term Stewardship Contract, awarded to J.R. Ford’s company Renewable Energy last month. A major point to consider, Hartvigsen said, is the distance the product would be hauled. For the stewardship contract, he explained, anything hauled over 50 miles would entail losing money.

Private landowners, business, federal, state and local government stakeholders are all interested in the outcome of this study.

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