Biomass bill would battle beetle kill by creating new plan, working group

A bill to create a working group of Colorado forest health, environment and energy experts to draft a biomass plan for coping with the beetle-kill epidemic passed on third reading in the state Senate Monday and passed on second reading in the House on Tuesday.

Dubbed the Forest Health Act of 2011, Senate Bill 267 (pdf) was sponsored by Sen. Gail Schwartz, D-Snowmass. The bill is sponsored by state Reps. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon, and Don Coram, R-Montrose, in the House.

“As we continue our work to combat Colorado’s serious beetle epidemic, the group of experts brought together by this bill will help us harvest fuels, develop healthy forests and allow our state to address the threat of tragic forest fires,” Schwartz said in a release.

Colorado and southern Wyoming have been ravaged by an ongoing mountain pine bark beetle epidemic that has killed more than 4 million acres of lodgepole pine trees. Several communities, including Vail and Avon, have explored ways to mitigate the impacts by using forest waste to create heat and electricity in biomass power plants. Vail was on the verge of developing a multi-megawatt biomass power plant but lost out in the final round of Department of Energy funding.

Such facilities have been producing power in Europe for years, utilizing a process called high-heat wood gasification that consumes forest waste with very low emissions. It’s considered carbon neutral when compared to the emissions that would occur in a fire or even in the normal process of decomposition on the forest floor.

However, environmental groups have expressed concerns about accessing the dead trees in and around mountain communities, fearful that new networks of logging roads will be needed to thin forests on public lands, thereby creating erosion problems and impacting streams and rivers.

The new group formed under the bill and convened by the Colorado State Forester “will help us to identify market-based solutions to protect our forests, stimulate biomass energy development and create good paying jobs,” according to Schwartz.

If the bill passes out of the House in the waning hours of the session, the group would be required to complete its initial report by Nov. 1 and then finalize it and present it to the State Legislature by Jan. 1 of next year.

[Image: Gail Schwartz ]