Slash and Earn

boone speed, klamath tribes, oregon natie americans
The future site of the Giiwas Green Energy Park, which the Tribes hope will become a biomass solution to forest management and provide sustainable energy. / Photo by Boone Speed

written by Libby Tucker | photo by Boone Speed


Along milepost 224 heading north through Klamath County, sits an abandoned sawmill that’s become the hope for economic revitalization in south Central Oregon and perhaps a sustainable energy paradigm throughout the western states.

The dilapidated sawmill is a curious sight among the millions of acres of trees in the adjacent Fremont-Winema National Forest. Lodgepole pine trees, an invasive species here, grow thick around a smattering of Ponderosa pines, and the stands are choked to the canopy with foliage.

Twenty-five miles south, another isolated lot near Chiloquin comprises some of the few remaining acres still owned by the Klamath Tribes after the loss of their reservation through a treaty with the federal government more than 50 years ago. In his office at the tribal administration building, natural resources director Will Hatcher stands near a wall-sized map of Klamath County and traces his finger along the former boundary of his ancestral lands. The Klamath, Modoc and Yahooskin people, now known collectively as the Klamath Tribes, owned 880,000 acres, nearly the whole map, until Congress terminated the Tribe’s status in 1956 and liquidated the Klamath Reservation. Now, even after regaining its status in 1986, the Tribes own only a few thousand acres, including the old mill site, less than a fingertip of property.

About 14 percent of the Klamath Reservation was sold by the federal government to private logging companies, while the rest became Winema National Forest. After 80 years of selective logging and fire suppression, the forest harbors few old-growth Ponderosa stands, is overgrown with lodgepole pines, and is vulnerable to wildfires and disease. What’s left isn’t worth harvesting, and most of the region’s sawmills have closed. Still, the mill site is the center of the Klamath Tribe’s impressive strategy to regain economic self-sufficiency.

“We’re trying to create a marketable solution for the problem with the forests around here locally and throughout the West: too many small-diameter trees that have no commercial value,” says Hatcher. “Those trees are creating huge problems for our forests.” Hatcher grew up in the Klamath Basin and began his career in forest management nearly 40 years ago with the U.S. Forest Service. He’s now overseeing the Tribes’ plan to restore the forest.

The Tribes hope to buy back all of the former reservation lands, starting with the 108-acre Crater Lake Mill Site that they bought last November. Here they plan to build the Giiwas Green Energy Park, an industrial operation to collect biomass from overgrown forestlands, and use it to fuel a cogeneration plant and wood products business. This project could serve as a model for other rural communities and Native American tribes, and help open federal lands to a renewable source of energy. The plan would create about 35 jobs for tribal members and other county residents collecting woody biomass in the forest, operating the plant, and manufacturing wood chips, firewood, small posts and poles, according to the South Central Oregon Economic Development District.

“The Tribes have been the biggest loser in the basin for 150 years,” says James Honey, a Klamath Basin program director with Sustainable Northwest, a nonprofit involved in negotiating a settlement agreement with the Tribes over water rights in the Klamath Basin. “We need to provide new economic opportunities for tribal and rural people.”

A Model for the West

The situation is familiar throughout the western United States where boarded-up sawmills or those left idle during the recent economic downturn are found near vast swaths of public lands on which overgrown forests have become vulnerable to wildfires and disease. Fire spreads quickly in the underbrush and up into the mid-sized trees, which act as a ladder that spreads the fire into the highest level of the canopy and grills the most mature trees. By removing the smaller trees and some of the undergrowth leftover from logging – known as “slash” – forest managers can help prevent catastrophic wildfires and restore healthy tree growth. The Forest Service, however, doesn’t have the budget to restore all federal forestland, and there’s simply no financial gain to harvesting the small-diameter wood.

“We’ve got forest slums on our hands,” says David Sjoding, a renewable resources specialist with the Washington State University Extension Energy Program, a group working with Northwest Congressional leaders to develop forest management plans that incorporate tree thinning for renewable energy development.

Biomass is essentially solar energy stored in plants. It is burned to heat water to create steam that then drives a turbine and generates electricity that can be used on site or sold to utilities.

Biomass produced on forest lands in the western U.S. has the potential to generate some 2,230 megawatts of renewable energy, or about the equivalent of the energy produced by four typical coal-fired power plants, according to the Western Governors’ Association. Biomass is essentially solar energy stored in plants. It is burned to heat water to create steam that then drives a turbine and generates electricity that can be used on site or sold to utilities. The excess heat can also supplant coal and natural gas in wood products manufacturing, such as paper mills and pulp, in a process called cogeneration. Generating power from biomass still releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, and so the U.S. and international carbon markets consider biomass “green” energy only if plants are grown to recapture the carbon dioxide and replace the biomass that is combusted.

Burning wood is one the oldest forms of energy production but, as a commercial venture, biomass plants are largely untested. To justify a significant investment in new equipment, training and land, biomass developers need to be sure the forest holds enough woody residue to provide a fuel supply for at least 20 years. In 2007, an Oregon Department of Energy study found 1.1 million acres of forest eligible for restoration within 75 miles of Klamath Falls, 27 miles south of Chiloquin, with a potential for producing 150 megawatts of electricity and creating 900 jobs in the area. But the numbers are only an estimate. It’s unclear exactly how much biomass forestland can produce or even how to sustainably manage a forest in order to guarantee future supplies.

“My problem is, I don’t trust experts; our ignorance exceeds our knowledge in anything, be it love, or energy or the way we interact with the natural world,” says Tom Chester, director of the Renewable Energy Center at the Oregon Institute of Technology in Klamath Falls. The Renewable Energy Center is working with the Klamath Tribes to develop a feasibility study for the Giiwas project. “Maybe we need to thin forests, but do we know that for sure? I see the world in gray.”

Despite the uncertainty and risk, tribes and rural communities throughout the West that had been considering renewable energy projects are now rushing to file applications for federal funding to turn existing and abandoned sawmills into biomass projects, says Bob Middleton, director of the Office of Energy and Economic Development for the U.S. Bureau of Indian Affairs. He estimates the number of tribes requesting his department’s assistance in developing biomass facilities has doubled since last year. Renewable energy development is a funding priority in federal budgets under the new Obama administration. A three-year extension of tax credits for renewable energy projects is included in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act to spur job creation and combat climate change. Pairing forest restoration with electricity production from biomass is a solution that provides a “double opportunity” for economic development, Middleton says.

“You do fuels reduction to decrease the forest fire danger but use that slash to drive a biomass plant, either for local cogeneration or to generate some electricity,” says Middleton. “But the economics really depend on how much land you have. You need adequate fuel stocks within 25 to 30 miles of your operation.”

Communities historically centered on forest products and located close to public lands are ideal candidates for biomass projects. The Warm Springs and Umatilla tribes in Oregon and the town of Lakeview, 100 miles southeast of Chiloquin in Lake County, all have biomass plants in the works. They’re starting to reverse the decades-long consolidation of small, locally-owned mills that were bought by large timber companies aiming to maximize profits with harvests of mature trees. The rural economies are returning to an old model of smaller scale, locally-owned mills and small power plants close to where the energy is used, right on the land, according to Sustainable Northwest.

A Plan to Buy Land

The plan is riskier for the Klamath Tribes, which is the only Oregon tribe that owns virtually no land and the only tribe in the United States with a national forest on its former reservation. In Klamath County, where 80 percent of the land is forested, the Tribes are surrounded by land they can’t legally harvest without a stewardship contract from the Forest Service. The 2004 Tribal Forest Protection Act allows tribes to sign contracts with the Forest Service, but only if they own land that borders directly on federal forestlands. The Klamath Tribes’ plan hinges on its ability to buy enough land to stage a trial, but also to recruit and train personnel.

“The project is simple in concept but complicated to implement,” says Larry Swan, a forest products and economic development specialist with the Fremont-Winema National Forest. “The Tribes need to build their management capacity and business experience—not to mention, someone’s gotta fund it.”

Just across the highway from the proposed Giiwas Green Energy Park site is the 90,000-acre Mazama Tree Farm, a privately-owned commercial logging site in the northwest corner of the former Klamath Reservation with a 50-mile border with federal forestland – a good-sized plot on Hatcher’s map. Owner Fidelity National Financial, a real estate investment trust, has largely cleared the land of merchantable timber, and the company is now in negotiations to sell the land back to the Klamath Tribes. The deal is part of the Klamath Basin settlement agreement in which the federal government has agreed to give the Klamath Tribes $21 million toward the purchase of the Mazama tract in exchange for concessions on the Tribes’ water rights. The Tribes have until this fall to finalize the deal or the property hits the open market.

“The potential of that site is enormous,” says Jeff Mitchell, Klamath Tribes chairman and the driving force behind its economic development effort. “Acquiring it gives the Tribes a huge opportunity to start creating a forest-based economy once again.”

Regaining a significant portion of the former ancestral lands would provide a foundation for the Tribes’ new biomass-based economy, but it’s just one more step needed to meet their long-term goal of achieving self-sufficiency. Restoring the forest to harvest sawmill lumber would take about 40 years, and collecting a sustainable supply of biomass will take 20 to 25 years of forest growth. The Tribes must “think and plan generationally,” says Hatcher. A new $1.4 million recovery act grant announced by the Forest Service in May will help train tribal members in forest thinning and establish management crews. The money will help build the Tribes’ capacity to bid on federal forest stewardship contracts while they work out the financing to grow their own land base.

To the Tribes, the purchase of the Mazama Tree Farm and the development of the Giiwas Green Enterprise Park also represent something bigger. Employment with the Tribes is limited right now to work at the tribal administrative offices, at one of the health clinics or at the Tribes’ Kla-Mo-Ya casino.

With the return of their ancestral lands, which are considered a gift from their creator, gmoc’am’c, and the center of their spiritual and cultural identity, the Klamath Tribes can once again work in the forest as their ancestors did. They can help restore the forests to a healthier condition and contribute to a modern economy that’s creating new markets for sustainable wood products and generating renewable energy.

Hatcher asks, “How can a sovereign nation exist without land?”

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