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State OKs Long-term Timber-sales Pact for Proposed Tok Biomass-fueled Powerplant

Tim Ellis/KUAC file photo

The Alaska Division of Forestry has given the go-ahead to a long-term timber sales contract that would allow a company to harvest trees on state forest land around Tok. The timber would be used as fuel for a proposed biomass power-generating station that would provide electricity for the community – and make the area safer from wildfires.

State Forester Chris Maisch says he and other Forestry officials will as soon as possible offer a 25-year contract to harvest timber from state forestland around Tok to provide fuel for a biomass-fired power-generating facility that Alaska Power and Telephone has proposed to build in Tok.

“Well, we’d like to put it out to bid pretty promptly, so that would be this spring,” Maisch said. “And we’re hoping by the end of May that we would have notice out on that actual sale and bidding process.”

AP&T proposed the 2 megawatt biomass-fueled heat and power plant in 2011 in an effort to hold down the high cost of generating electricity in Tok. Power produced by the utility’s diesel-fired generators now costs its 800-some customers up to 50 cents per kilowatt hour.

The Forestry Division’s role in the proposal is to manage the contract under which timber would be harvested from up to 900 acres annually from the Tanana Valley State Forest.

Forestry officials say the harvests would reduce the amount of trees that might otherwise provide fuel a wildfire. That’s a big concern for the Tok area, which has been threatened with wildfires at least four times over the couple of decades.

Joe Young runs a sawmill in Tok, and he says Forestry’s decision is good news for him – and the community.

“I’m glad that they came out with it in a timely manner and yes, I think I’ll be a very serious bidder for the 25-year biomass timber sale (contract),” he said.

Young says up to 50 jobs could be created through the biomass project timber-sales contract. And he says it would give Tok a badly needed economic boost, and could help promote a forest-products industry in the area.

“I think there’s actually a statewide market for the fuel logs, because everybody burns fuelwood,” Young said.

Young can compete for the contract now because Forestry officials changed their initial timber-sales contract proposal, issued a year ago, and now allow competitive bidding. Young and other members of the community raised concerns about Forestry’s original proposal, which called for AP&T to get the contract. Company officials have stated they’re still interested in competing for it.

Maisch says Forestry officials decided against accommodating another concern raised over the initial proposal – over the length of the contract period. Some community members and environmentalists said that the forest might not be able to sustain the proposed level of harvest over a 25-year timeframe.

But Maisch says the 25-year contract period is necessary to attract private investors. And he says agency officials determined that the forest can sustain that level of harvest.

“We’re well within the amount that’s do-able,” he said.

He says Forestry staff will monitor the health of the forest throughout the contract period, and conduct periodic reviews to ensure the harvests are sustainable.

“It’s meant to be an ongoing process,” Maisch said.

An official with the Northern Alaska Environmental Center said Tuesday that the organization mainly supports the Tok biomass project, and promotes the use of alternative fuels such as biomass. But Lissa Hughes says the organization still has concerns over the forest being able to sustain regrowth at the level proposed over 25 years.

Tim has worked in the news business for over three decades, mainly as a newspaper reporter and editor in southern Arizona. Tim first came to Alaska with his family in 1967, and grew up in Delta Junction before emigrating to the Lower 48 in 1977 to get a college education and see the world.