Building a new wood products industry
A $2 million grant could create new markets for Baker County private forest owners
A $2 million grant is breathing life into planning for a new sustainable wood products industry in Baker County capable of providing income for woodland owners and low-cost power, heat, wood pellets and firewood to the community.
During a meeting of Baker County Small Woodlands Association Thursday, Nils Christoffersen, executive director of Wallowa Resources, presented a preliminary report and recommendations for using the anticipated $2 million in grant money to help fund development of a wood-fired gasification plant, a wood pellet mill and firewood production.
The preliminary cost estimate for all three options totals about $9 million.
Payments to woodland owners who supply the material are projected at about $1 million per year, based on a price of $25 per green ton for wood delivered to a site in Baker City, plus a $10 tax credit per green ton for the renewable energy portion of the projects.
The plan focuses on developing productive uses for 41,000 to 45,000 tons of non-saw-log woody biomass per year from private forests in Baker County and 15,000 to 20,000 green tons from southern Union County, according to the report from Wallowa Resources.
Another 3,000 to 5,000 green tons per year is available from juniper cutting, and from the Baker County landfill, according to the report.
“All combined, the analysis of available information suggests a range of 59,000 to 70,000 green tons of woody biomass supply each year. This does not include the 20,000 green tons of residential slash volume from completed harvest operations that (the Oregon Department of Forestry) estimates is currently piled on private forests,” according to the report.
Biomass from federal forests could add another 60,000 green tons to the supply, and possibly much more if forest officials authorize more thinning.
Christoffersen described a system where woodland owners would thin their timber stands and the larger logs not sold to mills would be cut and dried for firewood. Smaller trees and other woody biomass, including slash piles from logging, would supply the gasifier power plant and the pellet mill. Heat created as a byproduct from the gasifier plant could be used to dry the pellets.
A site analysis has yet to be completed. However, Christoffersen said the gasifier plant should be built someplace with close access to the electric grid so power generated can be sold to power companies, which by law must purchase power when available from small-scale renewable energy sources such as the one under consideration by the woodlands association.
Besides providing a sustainable source of income for woodland owners, Eileen Gyllenberg, president of the Baker County Small Woodlands Association, said the products from those operations would benefit area residents, businesses and government institutions by providing less expensive sources of power or heat than what is available from natural gas or electric utilities.
“We want this to be a local effort that involves all of Baker,” Gyllenberg said. “I’m sure everyone in town would like to lower their heating bill.”
She said members of the woodlands association have a decision to make about whether they as a group want to pursue development of the three-part integrated wood production and renewable energy options recommended by Christoffersen and Wallowa Resources, or contract to sell their woody biomass to two existing companies that are considering building a pellet mill and possibly a post-and-pole facility.
Christoffersen said Western Oregon Wood Products and Bear Mountain Wood Products have also been talking with Baker County economic development staff and woodland owners about their plans to invest in a pellet mill and post-and-pole operations.
“Both of those companies have good reputations and are running good businesses,” Christoffersen said. “If you like what they are talking about bringing here, go for it.”
He encouraged woodland owners to talk with representatives from those companies to determine whether they are willing “to pay you what you need” to supply them with wood.
“We really can’t do both,” Gyllenberg said, adding that Christoffersen recommended keeping some control over the process by developing the three-part integrated system in partnership with Wallowa Resources and possibly other investors.
“If you just have someone coming in from outside, you lose that control, so that is something to think about,” Gyllenberg said.
At Thursday’s meeting, Christoffersen asked members of the woodlands association to review the report and recommendations from Wallowa Resources and get back to him by Dec. 5 with comments for a final report and cost analysis due by Dec. 15.
Randy Guyer, past president of the woodlands association, said if members decide to proceed with the recommendations from Christoffersen and Wallowa Resources, development of a business plan will be the next step.
He said state and federal grant funds and low-interest loans are available for much of the funding for the renewable energy portions of the project, and additional grants and loans are available through the USDA Rural Development program and local banks.
Guyer said the association adopted five objectives to guide efforts to re-establish a viable wood products industry in the county, including income to support forest management practices carried out by small woodlands owners, preservation of small woodland owners, providing a profitable market for timber from small woodlands operations, education of members and the general public, and the management of renewable resources.
Goals under the renewable resource management objective include managing private woodlands for optimal and sustained yield, multiple use, environmental considerations, to encourage stewardship management plans and to help woodland owners retain family ownership, he said.
Bob Parker, Oregon State University Extension agent for forestry and small woodlands, said after years of studying various options, woodland owners are at the point where they have some decisions to make.
“We’ve been wrestling with this for about six years now, but we are making progress,” Parker said. “There are good opportunities out there, and a lot of challenges.
“We’ve got some good people here. If there’s a way to do it, we’ve got the people and we’ve got the capacity,” he said.
Chad Davis, program manager with Sustainable Northwest, said the $2 million grant is available over five years based on the projects recommended by Christoffersen, and is funded by Sustainable Northwest of Portland, the U.S. Endowment for Forests and Communities, the Watershed Restoration Center of California, Resource Innovation of Eugene and the Ecosystem Worksource Project at the University of Oregon.
“We’ve been working for a long time to get a plant of some kind in the county to utilize forest products,” said Bill Shumway, a member of the woodlands association.
That search has been going on at various levels ever since the last lumber mill in Baker County shut down in 1996.
Because private woodlands weren’t capable of supplying a full-scale lumber mill, he said the focus has been on attracting or developing smaller wood products operations, such as the wood-burning gasifier plant, pellet mill and firewood operation recommended by Christoffersen and Wallowa Resources.
Shumway said he likes the idea of integrating the three uses for wood products, especially the woody biomass that currently goes to waste when it is stacked and burned after thinning operations.
“When you looked at the Elkhorns last week, you could see a lot of smoke from all the slash burning,” Shumway said. “That material could bring some income from the wood, but instead it is going to waste.”