Journal of the NACAA
ISSN 2158-9429
Volume 6, Issue 1 - May, 2013

Exploring Solutions to Pinyon and Juniper Expansion and Densification through Biomass Field Days

Nelson, M., Agricultural Agent, Utah State University
McAvoy, D., Forestry Extension Associate, Utah State University

ABSTRACT

Pinyon and Juniper (PJ) trees are taking over rangelands in the western U.S. Currently there are nearly 50 million acres of PJ woodlands and more acres are being expanded into each year. Utilization of woody biomass generated from forest treatments can provide jobs, stimulate the local economy and ultimately reduce the cost of forest treatments. Southern Utah Woody Biomass, a loosely knit organization of private individuals and government personnel has come together to promote the development of harvesting techniques and the utilization potential of PJ biomass. Since October 2010 three field days have been hosted in southern Utah. Over $7.5 million in equipment has been demonstrated and exhibited. Field day attendees include 715 people from 18 states, Canada, and China. The field days demonstrated different methods of harvesting in PJ woodlands and looked at ways of adding value to the harvested trees. Leading experts in the woody biomass and forestry industry addressed the importance of restoring woodlands and ways for industry and government to partner to address the problem.


Introduction

Pinyon-juniper (PJ) woodlands and forest cover more than100 million acres of the western U.S. and are increasing each year. Since World War II, the Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) have worked hard to stop forest fires. These efforts have resulted in more extreme fires today because of all the available fuels. Thinning can reduce or even eliminate the catastrophic aspect of a fire. Proactive management can provide positive use of pinyon-juniper fuels while reducing fire suppression and restoration costs (Taush, 2011).

Research Range Scientist, Dr. Robin Tausch of the U.S. Forest Service Rocky Mountain Research Station in Reno, Nevada, who spoke at the 2nd Biomass Field Day, has studied juniper populations in the Great Basin for many years. He said that over the course of about 5,000 years, pinyon-juniper expanded from the valley floor of the northern Mojave desert near present-day Las Vegas to southern Idaho, moving north at an average rate of about one football field per year. Tausch emphasized the importance of management on pinyon-juniper woodlands.

Tausch’s research shows that PJ covers 10 times the number of acres that it did at Euro American settlement. Furthermore, these acres are expected to become three times denser with PJ in the coming decades. This dense canopy allows little else to grow but exotic annual grasses. The result is that when a fire eventually comes through there are no forbs or bunchgrasses left to revegetate the site, burning so hot that it damages the soil and a perpetual cycle of fire and cheat grass dominates the landscape. If we can create value out of this resource then we will be able to afford to treat more acres on limited federal budgets.

In the last 150 years major increases have occurred in the pinyon-juniper expansion and in the biomass levels of all Great Basin woodlands. This has generated interest in using these woodlands for biomass harvest. Important to the success of such utilization is the long-term stability in the available biomass needed to make such commercial harvest financially viable. If we can create value out of this resource then we will be able to afford to treat more acres on limited federal budgets.

Although wind and solar power are the first things that come to mind when thinking about alternative energy, the vast majority of our alternative energy already comes from biomass. Biomass can be thought of as stored solar energy. Biomass is any organic material, and the focus of the UBRG is woody biomass utilization, specifically PJ utilization. Perhaps the biggest potential source of woody biomass in Utah is from pinyon-juniper restoration projects and wild land fire hazard reduction projects (Wilent 2010). Many scientists believe that PJ has encroached upon thousands of acres that were historically vegetated with sagebrush, grasses and forbs, which offer greater diversity and better wildlife habitat than a landscape thickly wooded with PJ. The BLM is treating up to 40,000 acres annually just in Utah. PJ woodlands are increasingly being thinned to reduce their water yield with many examples of thinning leading to springs and seeps returning after years of absence.

Objectives of the Woody Biomass Field Days are to:

Educate land owners, federal land managers and the general public about the expansion and densification of PJ woodlands and the associated ecological, social and financial impacts on the ranges of the intermountain west.

Demonstrate machinery that can chip or compress pinyon-juniper biomass on site, reducing transportation costs. Also demonstrate gasification units that can use biomass in generating electricity.

Examine ways to create markets for biomass. Some of the end products include firewood and wood pellets, cattle bedding, landscaping mulch, and fuel for 1 to 1.3 megawatt electric power plants that each can serve about 800 typical homes.

Methods

In recent years the BLM has contracted with private contractors to remove pinyon-juniper biomass from public lands. These stewardship contracts require the contractors to remove most juniper trees and some of the pinyon trees and leave less than six inches of mulch on the ground. The contractors are looking for ways to cut down the trees, mulch them and then remove the majority of the mulch from the public lands. Removing and hauling the mulch can become expensive. In order to pay for this expense local contractors are looking for better equipment to mulch and harvest the trees and find markets for the harvested product.

In order to address this need, Southern Utah Woody Biomass, a loosely knit organization of private individuals and government personnel came together to promote development of harvesting and utilization of pinyon-juniper. Lance and Michelle Lindbloom, local stewardship contractors, along with BLM, Forest Service, Utah Biomass Resources Group, USU Extension and others made up this biomass group. Together they put on the first Woody Biomass Field Day. This field day was designed to demonstrate ways to harvest, transport and find new markets for the pinyon-juniper biomass.

First Field Day

The first Southern Utah Woody Biomass Field Day held on October 18, 2010, south of Beaver, Utah, was a big hit by several measures. Where else could you find 200 people from across the country and China getting together in the field on a day with a chance of rain to talk about biomass utilization? With five large grinders, chippers, several biomass transport vehicles, a firewood processor, bunches of support equipment and tables full of sandwiches for lunch, people were enjoying the opportunity to talk to each other about biomass utilization. Attendees watched as powerful equipment shredded and chipped trees that had been previously cut to improve deer winter range, reduce predation by mountain lions, improve forest/woodland health, and reduce dangerous and destructive wildfires on BLM land along the I-15 corridor. Piles of pinyon and juniper, removed from the nearby forests, were reduced to chips and semi-vans were filled in a matter of minutes. Equipment was trucked at the manufacturers’ expense from Arizona, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Salt Lake City, and Wisconsin. The committee realized that the location of the site along I-15 would make a great place to demonstrate to people what biomass harvesting is all about and show them the state-of the-art equipment for just such a purpose. The goals for this field day evolved from the original concept, which was to see exactly what these machines could do with this type of product. After talking with many different people from diverse backgrounds, the goals shifted from not only viewing products that could be created, but also bringing together all segments of the biomass industry to mingle and discuss the machinery they were seeing. One of many successes of this first field day was that Lindblooms were able to find a company that paid to have the mulch hauled from Beaver, Utah, to their mulching business in Salt Lake City, Utah.

 

                                          

Figure 1. Participants are interested in seeing what new equipment is available to harvest pinyon/juniper.

Second Field Day

With the unmistakable roar of heavy machinery and a cloud of sawdust in the late spring air, the Second Annual Southern Utah Biomass Field Day began. On June 3 and 4, 2011, biomass enthusiasts from 15 U.S. states and Canada gathered on a BLM mechanical treatment site south of Beaver. Federal and state employees, private contractors, equipment vendors, and university researchers convened on a parcel of pinyon and juniper covered land that the BLM had marked for thinning. This year’s field day centered upon the viability of biomass as an economically feasible and renewable fuel source. Many of the two-day event speakers spoke about the need to thin Utah’s pinyon-juniper forests in order to restore ecosystem health and prevent catastrophic wildfires. Bob Rummer, a Forest Service research engineer and biomass expert from Auburn, Alabama, spoke about cost-effective uses for mechanically treated trees that can be provided through biomass utilization.

Central to efficient biomass utilization is the use of machinery that can chip or compress biomass on site, reducing transportation costs. Vendors representing eight forestry equipment companies provided attendees with an up-close glimpse of biomass harvesting and processing in action. Equipment exhibits included a Bobcat skid steer with a Fecon BullHog mulcher, a WoodMizer portable sawmill, a BioBaler mulcher and compactor, and many others.

One highlight of the equipment exhibits was a demonstration of gasification provided by the University of Montana’s BioMax biomass generator. Brian Kerns of the University of Montana spoke about the potential uses for biomass in generating energy. The BioMax’s gasification technology creates combustible gasses from a woody feedstock. According to Kerns, the BioMax provides a model to convert local renewable resources into useful products, effectively turning waste into energy.

Representatives from Utah state government arrived on day two of the field day. Ted Wilson, Governor Gary Herbert’s senior advisor on environmental matters, spoke in support of biomass utilization projects throughout the state. During a dinner at Eagle Point Resort near Beaver, biomass experts presented information about the future of biomass utilization in the Intermountain West.

                                 

Figure 2. This mobil gasification unit demonstrates how pinyon/juniper can be used to produce electricity.

Third Field Day

The Utah Biomass Resources Group (UBRG) held Utah’s first-ever wood powered concert on Wednesday, September 19, 2012, in Beaver. Utah State University’s mobile gasification demonstration unit, dubbed the Dragon Wagon, supplied power for the concert. The Muddy Boots Band played country rock for 150 attendees. This was part of the third annual Southern Utah Biomass field days which were geared toward educating professionals and the public about woody biomass utilization. The field days were co-hosted by Southern Utah Biomass, USU Beaver County Extension and the UBRG. The field days featured three full days of biomass related learning opportunities. The first day’s event was the Biomass Summit, which included presentations from invited biomass specialists from around the West. The summit was held at Eagle Point Resort in the Tushar Mountains east of Beaver. Presentations covered the history of pinyon juniper expansion, wildlife impacts due to expansion, and what is happening in Utah and other states in biomass utilization. Steve Wilent, editor of “The Forestry Source,” a national forestry newspaper, delivered a national perspective on woody biomass issues.

Wednesday featured equipment demonstrations on state land at a site adjacent to I-15 south of Beaver. Manufacturers sent an assortment of equipment to demonstrate state-of-the-art harvesting and processing methods. Regional representatives from Idaho, Nevada, California, and Arizona joined Utah in presenting information to the audience of students, contractors, and land managers, interspersed with live demonstrations.

             

               Figure 3. Attendees observe many different  kinds of equipment during the field days.

After a day in the sun, it was fun to retire to the pavilion on Main Street in Beaver to see the Dragon Wagon provide power for the Muddy Boots Band. There were other demonstrations of more user accessible woody biomass utilization gadgets, including the Biolite Stove. This is a small camp-stove, about the size of a quart bottle, that can not only cook your dinner using a small wood fire inside the device, but can also charge your cell phone at the same time. Using a thermoelectric generator, the stove makes electricity from the heat and boils water in just a few minutes.

Students from the progressive renewable energy classes at Milford High School attended the equipment demonstrations and also used their thermal imaging video camera to document the activities of the smaller biomass burners at the barbecue.

The third and final day of the field days featured the pinyon juniper Restoration Tour, led by retired USFS District Ranger Dayle Flanigan. These sites had received an assortment of treatments from chainsaw thinning projects, mastication and biomass removal and prescribed fire at different points in time. Participants were able to see firsthand how removing pinyon-juniper improved the range ground.

Figure 4. These before and after pictures clearly portray the impact of pinyon/juniper thinning operations conducted in Beaver County.

Conclusion

Utah has nearly 10 million acres of pinyon-juniper. Where once pinyon and juniper trees were widely scattered across vast areas of grassland and sage brush steppe they now dominate the terrain and are spreading. Without more money being invested these overgrown acres will continue to densify and expand. Thinning of these stands has shown huge improvement for range, wildlife and livestock.

The three biomass field days brought people together from many different walks of life to view demonstrations of biomass harvesters and processing machines and see how they can be successfully used in small scale restoration efforts. It gave participants an opportunity to discuss ways to get bio-products to help pay for a portion of the restoration of pinyon-juniper stands in the Great Basin. It also was a great way to show how private business and government can join together to help solve problems for everyone.

References

Restoring the West (2011). Sustaining Forests, Woodlands, and Communities through Biomass Use. Proceedings, Logan, Utah.

McAvoy, Darren. (2012). Utah Forest News. Volume 16, Number 4. p. 1-2.

Tausch, R. (2011). Power Point - Society for Range Management rangelands.org/deserts/powerpoints. Rocky Mountain. Research Station, Reno,. NV.

Wiarda, Rose. (2011). Utah Forest News. Volume 15, Number 3. p. 1-3.

McAvoy, Darren. (2010). Utah Forest News. Volume 14, Number 4. p. 6-7.

Wilent, Steve. (2012). The Forestry Source. Volume 17, Number 11. p. 1, 6-7.