Senate hearing addresses Forest Health and Biomass Energy Act

By Erin Voegele | November 23, 2020

A county official from Arizona offered testimony in favor of the Forest Health and Biomass Energy Act during a Senate hearing held Nov. 18. The bill, introduced by Sen. Martha McSally, R-Ariz., on Sept. 16 aims incentivize the removal of dangerous overgrowth in forests.   

The legislation would advance forest restoration and fire resilience by incentivizing biomass energy development as a method to reduce hazardous fuel build-up in fire-prone forests. It would also direct the administration to assess the biomass energy fuel potential in U.S. forests with a focus on identifying the most viable sources for energy use, such as ladder fuels and byproducts of forest restoration, including branches, slash and other low-value biomass. In addition, the bill would establish a fund using a percentage of timber sale revenues to assist timber operators and biomass energy producers with the collection, harvesting and transportation of biomass material out of high hazard areas.

Art Babbott, county supervisor for Arizona’s Coconino County, offered testimony in support of the bill during the Nov. 18 hearing. He has served as a chair for the Four Forest Restoration Initiative, an ambitious 2.4-million-acre landscape scale restoration efforts spanning four forests across eastern and northern Arizona.

Coconino County is the second largest county in the contiguous U.S. and just 12 percent of its total landmass is privately owned, Babbott explained. The county is home to the largest ponderosa pine forest in the world. Like so many western communities, he said northern Arizona has increasingly experienced destructive wildfires, costing local, state and federal entities hundreds of millions of dollars in suppression and recovery costs.

According to Babbott, catastrophic wildfire and post-fire flooding are the number one public health and safety issues and risks facing Coconino County and its communities.

“Landscape scale forest restoration cannot succeed without viable private sector forest industry partners,” Babbott said, noting the lack of industry capacity for biomass disposal has created severe impediments to the successful implementation of the restoration initiatives.  

“The Forest Health and Biomass Energy Act addresses arguably the most critical bottleneck in moving landscape scale restoration efforts forward,” Babbott said. “That is how do we deal with the millions of tons of the no to negative value biomass and slash that must be removed to serve our restoration goals and objectives.”

“To put this in perspective, an average of 30 tons of negative to no value biomass comes off every restored acre in northern Arizona,” he added. “If we do not have strategies to deal with the tens of millions of tons of biomass and fuel loads on these Forest Service lands, we will not reduce the threats of catastrophic fire and the subsequent ecological sterilization of millions of acres of public land. This bill is an important step to changing the narrative that plays out in the front pages of newspapers each fire season in our communities every year as well.”

Babbott said the bill plays a critical vehicle to moving the conversion from the biomass bottleneck forward. “We should not get sidetracked over whether or not 12 inches, 14 inches or 10 inches is the correct dimension for no value designation,” he added. “It is the big picture approach that needs to be supported at this point, not every last detail of the proposal. The fact is there is a broad consensus among diverse stakeholders that we must make progress on the biomass question if we are to make progress on reducing the threat of catastrophic fire in our communities.”

Babbott stressed that “expanding biomass energy opportunities serves in reducing carbon emissions, protecting public safety and infrastructure and puts into action the understanding that prevention is a far more fiscally responsible strategy than paying for fire suppression and post fire cleanup.”

In his written testimony, Babbott noted that Arizona has only one 30 megawatt (MW) bioenergy plant. An additional 90 MW of biomass energy capacity would be needed to consume the biomass residue that will be produced form the Four Forest Restoration Initiative alone.

A replay of the hearing and a copy of Babbott’s written testimony is available on the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources website