Environmentalists say they support two big alternative-energy projects that have been proposed for a couple of communities in the Interior to help ease the high cost of electricity and heating. But they’re concerned about one part of the proposals – the length of the timber-sales contracts that would allow harvesting on thousands of acres of state forest land annually in the Interior.
Proponents of a plan to build a biomass-fueled electrical-generating plant in Tok have been saying ever since they proposed the project year before last that it’s a win-win-win proposal:
* It would cut the high cost of generating heat and power in the community, by using scrubby black spruce harvested from the nearby forest as fuel for the biomass boiler.
* It would preserve air quality, because the high-tech boilers would efficiently incinerate the fuel, and scrubbers would remove almost all pollutants from the smoke coming out the stack.
* And harvesting timber around Tok would help reduce the area’s wildfire danger by reducing the buildup in the heavily overgrown forest.
Environmentalists support the concept. But, says Lissa Hughes, with the Northern Alaska Environmental Center, there’s a caveat to that support:
“Our concerns are stemming primarily around the length of this contract, and what kind of precedents a 25-year contract might have in terms of future contracts with all of these competing proposals,” Hughes said. “And, how that larger picture might affect the long-term sustainability of the forest.”
Hughes says there’s a lot of concern that the Interior’s slow-growing boreal forests not being able to sustain the level of timber harvest that’s being proposed for these biomass systems.
The Tok project calls for harvesting about 35,000 tons of biomass fuel every year on up to 530 acres of the Tanana Valley State Forest. A bigger project proposed by Fort Greely officials would permit harvesting some 110,000 tons of biomass on up to 1,500 acres of the state forest annually.
Those are much biggest timber harvests than have ever been conducted in the Interior. And that worries Chris Stark, a UAF researcher and member of the forest Citizens' Advisory Committee.
“Twenty-five years – that’s a really, incredibly long time,” Stark said. “We have never come anywhere near this length of time of guessing – and I want to emphasize guessing – what’s going to happen in the forest.”
Stark says the uncertainty over the impact of such large-scale timber harvests is compounded by climate change.
“And if you think about climate change, and if you listen to some of things that are being portrayed by researchers at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks, this forest may look quite different in 25 years,” he said.
State Forester Chris Maisch says he and others with the state Forestry Division share those concerns. He says state policies require forests to be managed sustainably – to balance resource development in a way that ensures the forest can regenerate the resource.
“Y’know, forestry and the practice of forest management is all about the long-term sustainability of those resources,” Maisch said. “So, we would approach these sales no differently.”
But Hughes says Forestry should handle these sales differently, because the program is new territory for the agency. She says the state should move cautiously and plan to make adjustments in the timber-sales contracts to ensure that the forests can sustain harvests on this scale.
“Is the state able to effectively manage forest resources to the benefit of all Alaskans by issuing a 25-year contract, and maybe another 25-year contract?” So, I think it’s that larger picture that we’re looking out for,” she said.
Maisch says businesses often seek long-term contracts as a way of guaranteeing that access to the resource will be available long enough to both attract investors and make the project economically viable.
That’s basically the argument made by Alaska Power and Telephone, the company seeking approval on the Tok proposal.
Maisch says that officials with Siemens, the contractor studying the Greely biomass proposal, have floated the idea of a shorter contract period, of perhaps 15 years. The company will have to work out that and other details before it presents its formal proposal, perhaps as early as next month.