USA — While state lawmakers will be asked to look at legislation to spawn the use of forest slash as a larger-scale energy creating fuel, what is described as the “fire suppression-industrial complex” by a local business principal could be a hurdle. The reference, alluding to the military-industrial complex points, to the relationships between government, the flow of funding, and industry.
Brent Racher, the president of the New Mexico Forest Industry Association, last week told the Ruidoso area’s Little Bear Forest Reform Coalition that creating businesses for the use of small-diameter trees culled from overgrown forests in the name of reducing the wildland fire threat will need collaboration between industry and government. Racher said the state of New Mexico has spent more than $89 million to battle fires over the past 10 years.
“That $89 million, that was what the state spent,” Racher said. “Not what FEMA spent. Not what the Forest Service, or BLM, or anybody else. And yet we’re still in this place.”
Racher said budgets are understandable limited.
“Ballpark, cocktail napkin estimates, we need billions of dollars just in this state to solve the forest management problems that we have. All of the agencies combined are not going to get those kind of dollars into their budgets.”
Racher said as a result, industry needs step up while at the same time government provides the impetus. A New Mexico Forest Industry Association paper on the matter was presented to the state legislature’s Water and Natural Resources Committee in October.
“We have industry out there that is surviving but we also know that 60 to 70 percent of the (forest) material that they touch does not have a market for it that can even come close to paying for itself,” Racher said. “So we are subsidizing that in one way or the other. Those subsidies are limited. These guys do not have the budgets to handle this. So, in moving forward, we were actually trying to attack things in a way that would not ask for taxpayer dollars.”
But government policy changes could assist, Racher insisted. He said the big focus should be on renewable energy. A part of the thrust would see the state increase attention to thermal energy projects instead of just wind and solar. Legislation to accomplish that will be attempted this winter.
Little Bear Forest Reform Coalition Treasurer Cindy Lynch said if some of the money spent on putting out fires was diverted into pulling excess trees from forests, it also would make a difference.
“The money’s always there in a catastrophe, but we get no help in the interim,” Lynch said.
Racher responded that tweaking the system could create a value to non-lumber producing materials thinned from forests.
“I really appreciate what you’re doing,” Glen Barrow, a principal at a Glencoe based business that converts slash from forest thinning projects into wood shavings and animal bedding, told Racher. “I think it could be a small, possibly contributing factor.”
Barrow noted there have been about 17 major biomass energy projects proposed in New Mexico but they face an obstacle.
“All of those are fine things but what I’ve come to call is the phrase ‘the fire suppression industrial complex,’ and I think that goes right to Cindy’s comment.”
Barrow said the agencies that put out wildland fires are appreciated but the agencies and businesses that support fire suppression have become too dependant on fires.
“But somehow in this country, unless we take that paradigm change to say we’re going to slice off a good chunk of that money away from the fire suppression – restoration industrial-complex that’s been created in this country,” Barrow said. “We say we’re fighting for grant money. Forget grant money, investment money. A dollar spent in prevention could save $1,000 in taxpayers’ money. How do we shift that over? It’s a no brainer.”
Barrow always being told there is not enough money to mitigate the fire threat is incorrect because there will always be funding available to put out fires.
“It’s just stuck in the fire suppression-industrial complex,” Barrow said. “It’s available, because guess what, when the (Little Bear) Fire broke out and got big, all the money in the world showed up in our community.”
Barrow repeated it was time for a paradigm change in thinking.
“We can pull the fuels (overgrown forests) out,” Barrow said. “If the taxpayer invests the money, $3,000 or $4,000 an acre, I guarantee you, you will save hundreds, 10s of millions if not 100s of millions.” The failure was in the forest areas.Advertisement
Following a 10-year strategy, ACT fire managers have created a mosaic across the landscape of different fuel levels, burning at every opportunity.
But forests have been too wet to burn this spring and the past two summers.
A network of 500 fire trails and strategic burns along the north-west urban edge, heavy grazing and extra grass slashing will create a fortress for the territory which forecasters say faces a higher than average risk this summer.
After a fire-fuelled tornado in January 2003 killed four Canberrans and frightened thousands more, CSIRO fire expert Phil Cheney told the subsequent inquiry the fire’s penetration into urban areas under extreme conditions did not reflect a failure of fuel management on the urban interface.