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Wallowa County responds to challenges and develops biomass campus

Posted by Renee Magyar on August 21, 2013

Guest blogger Nils Christoffersen with the history and vision for the Integrated Biomass Campus in Wallowa County.

Aerial-View-of-Biomass-Campus-Sept-2012
2012 Aerial view of the Integrated Biomass Campus

When I first arrived in Wallowa County, located in the far northeast corner of Oregon, in June of 1999, the overriding objective of everyone involved in the forest sector was to find or build markets and uses for small-diameter logs, especially small-diameter pine. This need was similar across the intermountain west. Consultants and community nonprofits were working on the challenge from Oregon to Arizona to Montana.

The legacy of forest management techniques and fire suppression had left hundreds of thousands of acres in Wallowa County overstocked with small-diameter trees, particularly on public lands. This translated to very high cost for thinning projects. Markets to recoup value were either non-existent or too long a haul to be profitable, so production slowed. 

With public land constituting nearly 58% of the land base in the county, declining log production  posed significant challenges. Operations were further challenged by difficult to access restoration sites and insufficient volume per tree type to fill a truck. Contractors had three options: incur higher costs for trucks to make multiple stops for full truckloads of any one tree species; eliminate sorting and ship everything to the pulp plant; or leave a lot of volume in slash piles to be burned. Rarely did any of these options generate returns to the operator, so many opted not to thin. Overstocking and related tree mortality worsened and increased wildfire risks. As fuel loads increased, coupled with recurring drought cycles, fire suppression spending continued to rise. The US Forest Service has spent over $150 million fighting fires in Wallowa County since 1987.

The dramatic changes in land management on public land contributed to a loss of infrastructure. Between 1994 and 2007, the three remaining sawmills in Wallowa County closed due to the decline in federal timber harvest. This impacted over 30% of the county's workforce and eliminated markets for public and private forestlands. 

Clearly, innovation and market-based solutions to help restore forest health and create jobs were needed across eastern Oregon. 

Prior to the loss of the mills, Wallowa Resources, through its for-profit subsidiary WR Community Solutions Inc., entered into a partnership with the Joseph Timber Company LLC, a random length dimension mill heavily dependent on a diminishing supply of logs from the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest. In 2000, we jointly invested in the construction of a very small log processing line adjacent to the existing random length dimension mill that would allow processing of much smaller dimensional lumber. The joint venture failed in 2002 when the majority owner decided to shut down and plan for the liquidation of the Joseph Timber Company. 

Prior to the liquidation, Wallowa Resources removed core assets related to its investments and started a post and pole company (Community Smallwood Solutions) on industrial land offered by the City of Wallowa. These efforts initially struggled from insufficient working capital and supply of suitable logs. Firewood produced from unmillable logs was added as a second product line and increased sales revenues. With improved profitability, 16 private parties mostly from Wallowa County agreed to invest in Community Smallwood Solutions'providing critical capital to improve operational efficiency.

The ownership and operation continued to evolve when Integrated Biomass Resources LLC, a small locally owned forest products business, arrived in 2009 to provide critical leadership to the entire venture. Building from the existing base, Integrated Biomass Resources partnered with Wallowa Resources and its subsidiary to design and build a larger biomass campus to utilize the byproducts of forest management and restoration on the Wallowa-Whitman National Forest and adjacent private land. It is now becoming a hub of production for local forest products. 

In 2012, thanks to Wallowa County's acquisition of industrial land left vacant after the county's last sawmill closed in 2007, the integrated campus has a new home. This 70-acre site, once Wallowa Forest Products, allows for an expansion of the campus. Construction this summer will incorporate features that increase its efficiency and effectiveness as an economic catalyst.

Small diameter logs from nearby forest restoration work
Small diameter logs from nearby forest restoration work

The integrated campus: A successful market catalyst

By incorporating diverse processing systems on a single site, multiple products such as heating fuels, firewood, post and poles, and landscaping timbers can be efficiently produced, allowing for the utilization of a variety of local tree species and log sizes. 

The expansion at the new site will incorporate a sort yard and merchandizing process that will further expand commercial markets for a broader range of small logs and biomass. A 100 kilowatt combined heat and power biomass facility will bring on-site material efficiency close to 100% by using waste streams from the campus to produce renewable, clean burning, and cost effective heat and electricity used on the campus. 

As the campus becomes more efficient and market opportunities for wood products expand, demand for a wider variety of logs and forest restoration byproducts increases. This makes forest restoration more affordable and boosts the incentive to actively manage and restore more forest acres. In addition to supporting increased forest health through restoration, the campus design provides four additional benefits: (1) reduced impact on the restoration site and costs associated with processing in the forest; (2) integrated and diversified marketing abilities to generate the highest value from raw material; (3) greater diversity, stability, and predictability for the local economy; and (4) additional wood supply for other mills and regional customers of industrial forest products. 

The integrated campus is not only an economic catalyst helping to create and retain jobs in Wallowa County, but by utilizing small diameter logs that once had no market value, it is also helping to restore the region's forestland and helping to create a more resilient future for the community. 

Nils Christoffersen is Executive Director of Wallowa Resources in Enterprise, Ore. He can be reached at nils@wallowaresources.org.