Stewardship Contracts Offer Economic and Environmental Benefits

By Erin Voegele | December 03, 2012

As our elected officials continue to work on proposals to avert the “fiscal cliff,” some federal lawmakers would have you believe that the majority of federal spending is wasteful. However, at least one recent examples of federal spending related to the biomass industry demonstrates how some programs provide vast benefits, in more ways than one.

Last week, the U.S. Forest Service announced two 10-year stewardship contracts in Colorado. Pellet producer Confluence Energy was awarded the Medicine Bow-Routt Long Term Stewardship Contract, while West Range Reclamation was awarded the White River Long Term Stewardship Contract. The contracts focus on improving the health of portions of the Medicine Bow-Routt and White River national forests in southern Wyoming and northern Colorado that have been affected by mountain pine beetle.

According to the Forest Service, he contracts were awarded as part of a strategy developed by the Rocky Mountain Region to address health and safety threats created by the millions of acres of dead trees that have been caused by the mountain pine beetle epidemic, as well as the emerging spruce beetle epidemic.

Information published by the Forest Service specifies that since the mountain pine beetle epidemic began in the 1990s, more than 1.7 million acres of lodgepole pine and ponderosa pine in these two forests have been impacted. In fact, the Forest Service estimates that 70 to 80 percent of the mature trees on these lands have been killed already.

Dead trees impact the severity of wildfires, which, in turn, impact our rural and urban communities in many ways. With last summer’s severe drought, we often heard about the devastating effects wildfires can have on homes and property in terms of lost value. However, wildfires don’t only destroy homes, they also put infrastructure, such as power lines, at risk. They degrade watersheds, impact the quality of municipal water quality, and negatively impact regional communities in a wide variety of other ways, such as damaging the local tourism industry.

These stewardship contracts are providing benefits to the environment—and the economy—in several ways. Reducing the risk of wildfire obviously benefits the communities within these forest regions, and reduces the likelihood of severe—and expensive—wildfires.

However, Confluence Energy and West Range Reclamation are not simply going to dispose of this biomass waste; they are going to use it to produce renewable energy. Biomass with commercial value removed by Confluence Energy will be used to make wood products, including pellets. West Range Reclamation will also ensure that some beetle killed biomass is used to generate renewable energy. The company has partnered with Eagle Valley Clean Energy, with recently received a loan guarantee from the USDA to support the development of a 11.5 biomass power plant in Gypsum, Colo.

These stewardship contracts, in my opinion, are a great example of the significant benefits that can realized through well-formed federal funding programs. This is federal funding at its best.