USA — Local agencies have struggled for years to rid the San Bernardino National Forest of millions of dead trees and tons of flammable brush to reduce the threat of catastrophic fire facing the region’s mountain communities.
They’ve tried burying the debris and they’ve tried chipping it.
They’ve set piles of it ablaze and tossed some into incinerators.
Some of the wood has been made into pallets or even lumber for homes, but trucking it down the mountain is becoming increasingly expensive as gas prices soar.
Now, Inland Rep. Jerry Lewis is trying to engineer a land swap between county and federal agencies, paving the way for a biomass-energy plant near Big Bear that would address the glut of combustible vegetation and create a new source of energy for the area.
Under his bill, San Bernardino County would give the U.S. Forest Service a 71-acre tract of land near Big Bear that the county is acquiring. In exchange, the county would get 53 acres adjacent to a county-run landfill and recycling center near Baldwin Lake.
The land would be the site for the plant, which would burn biomass — trees, brush and other vegetation — to generate power for Bear Valley Electric, the local energy concern.
“To not have to pay to get rid of it would be huge,” San Bernardino National Forest Supervisor Jeanne Wade Evans said.
Earlier this month, the House Natural Resources Committee held a hearing on the bill in Washington. The hearing signaled movement toward a House vote and eventual passage.
But further consideration by the committee — a precursor to a vote — was then delayed last week despite a plea from Lewis, R-Redlands, as Congress grappled with the national economic crisis in its last days before recess. Lewis said he remained optimistic that the bill would move forward early next year when Congress returns.
In the meantime, officials from San Bernardino County and the Forest Service are talking with a company interested in building the plant. Thus far, county officials have no estimated cost or timeframe for completion.
Long Time Coming
While still many months away, the plan could help solve a problem brought on by a century of forest mismanagement.
“We still have a significant volume of biomass that needs to be dealt with,” said Peter Brierty, San Bernardino County fire marshal and assistant fire chief. “Now we have a way to deal with it, without hauling it down the mountain.”
More than 100 years of misguided fire suppression has left much of the nation’s forestland dangerously overgrown. Naturally occurring forest fires, which would have thinned national forests and kept them healthy, were snuffed out.
Several years of record drought around the turn of the century hit area forests hard — particularly the San Bernardino National Forest. With too many trees and too little water, entire stands of pines were weakened and left susceptible to attack from an army of bark beetles.
The drought and beetle epidemic killed off trees by the millions, turning wide swathes of the forest brown and ushering in an era of extreme fire threat for what has become the most heavily populated national forest in the nation. The threat was realized in 2003 and 2007, when devastating firestorms tore through the forest, destroying hundreds of homes.
A massive tree-removal campaign has made significant strides to reduce the fire threat around mountain communities from Idyllwild in Riverside County to Lake Arrowhead and Big Bear in San Bernardino County.
“Unfortunately, there is no place in the San Bernardino Mountains to dispose of the dead trees and brush being cleared to make the forest safe,” Lewis testified this month during a hearing before the Natural Resources Committee on Capitol Hill.
Besides trucking it away at increasing expense, officials have burned it in piles — a method only available in certain weather conditions — and buried it in landfills, which Brierty described as an embarrassing waste. Agencies have also used chippers to break the wood down, but still they are unable to keep up.
And matters are likely to get worse in November, when a new ordinance will require residents to clear all green vegetation, shrubs and grasses from up to 100 feet from their homes. The ordinance will cause an influx of vegetation that could be a resource if the plan succeeds.
“Instead of grinding it up, we believe we can utilize the material for green energy production,” said Kurt Winchester, Mountaintop District ranger for the Forest Service.
It remained unclear exactly how much energy could be generated from the site.
To date, there has been no analysis of the impact a plant might have on air quality in the mountain communities.
With a congressional mandate, the project would gain priority and would be able to proceed without some of the usual environmental red tape that can cause land exchanges to take as many as 12 years to complete under the normal Forest Service process, county and federal officials said.
But getting the bill passed has also been a lengthy process.
The legislation languished for 10 months before the Sept. 11 hearing in Washington. This week’s planned mark-up of the bill, when committee members were to be given an opportunity to weigh in on the plan, was shelved, even after Lewis wrote a letter to the committee’s top Democrat and Republican lawmakers, imploring them to move forward.
“We held out hope, but we know there are more important issues that they’re dealing with,” said Mary Patterson,” an administrative analyst for San Bernardino County Supervisor Dennis Hansberger, who first appealed to Lewis for help.
Lewis said he hopes the bill will be back before the committee as early as January.
One potential obstacle, however, is that a portion of Pacific Crest Trail, which stretches north from Mexico to Canada, runs through the piece of land that the county is planning to use for the biomass plant.
“The trail will have to be moved a little bit, but the movement is away (from the landfill), which is an improvement,” he said.
Lewis and other officials said they don’t think the trail will obstruct the deal.
But the bill has drawn opposition from Pacific Crest Trail Association, which views it as a legislative end-around that would eliminate important environmental review. Mike Dawson, the association’s director of trail operations, said the group has contacted members of Congress asking them to reject the bill.
“We don’t necessarily oppose this project,” he said. “What we want to see is due diligence.”