A citizens advisory panel has given qualified support to the state Forestry division’s plan to sell timber around Tok for a proposed biomass-fueled heat and power plant that’s been proposed to help cut the cost of electricity for that community.
Forestry officials will take the resolution and public comments on the project into consideration for a final decision on the long-term timber sales contract in the coming weeks.
Tanana Valley State Forest Citizens Advisory Committee member Chris Stark says the panel unanimously approved a resolution on Thursday supporting the state Forestry division’s findings in favor of a proposal to set up a 25-year timber sales contract for the Tok project.
But Stark says he and other committee members worry that the forest may not be able to sustain harvesting timber from up to 900 acres annually around Tok to get some 35,000 tons of biomass fuel. He echoes what others, including State Forester Chris Maisch, have said: which is there’s not a lot that’s known about harvesting this different type of timber than has been traditionally taken from forests in the Interior, for an alternative-energy use that’s also new to this area.
“This is all new to everybody,” Stark said. “Because we’re new to the game, our information is – it’s getting better.”
The contract would allow sales of mainly scrap timber such as black spruce that would be ground up into biomass that would fuel the proposed powerplant in Tok – which if built would be the first biomass-fueled facility in the state to provide heat and electricity for an entire community.
Stark wants Forestry to ensure the state forest around Tok can sustain that level of harvest. He says committee members included caveats in their resolution that also recommends that Forestry officials conduct reviews every five years on the price of timber it’s selling, to ensure the state is getting a fair return on the sale of the timber.
He acknowledges that could pose concerns for prospective investors that considering putting money into the project.
“That may be difficult for a banker,” Stark said. “So, the unknown is will a banker finance something that is 25 years out, if they don’t have a fixed resource price from the beginning.”
Glen Holt is the UAF Cooperative Extension Service’s eastern Alaska forester who attended Thursday’s meeting and has been following the evolution of the Tok biomass project, and advocating for it. Holt favors the 25-year contract period – and setting a relatively low price for the resource in the early going.
“The 25-year contract is a viable management technique that works in other places when you’re looking at trying to provide a product,” he said. “But if you start at the low value and work your way up, it’s probably a good idea.”
Forestry officials will take the advisory committee’s resolution into consideration, along with public comments, for a final decision on whether the agency will move ahead with the long-term timber-sales contract. Today is the last day for public comments on the proposal. Comments may be e-mailed or faxed to the Tok Area Forestry office at the address and fax number listed on agency’s website at forestry.alaska.gov.