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Posts Tagged ‘University of Montana’

U of Montana suspends biomass plant proposal, apologizes for “eco-terrorist” comment

Posted by Matthew Koehler on December 3, 2011

Last fall, when news broke that the University of Montana was planning to construct a $16 million wood-burning biomass plant on campus, the WildWest Institute got together with some retired UM professors and University neighborhood homeowners and began researching the proposal.

It quickly became apparent that many important questions and concerns were going unanswered by UM officials, some of whom seemed to favor running a PR campaign over a transparent, open public process. So, to get to the bottom of what was really happening, we conducted an open records search of UM’s biomass project file, which included poring over hundreds of electronic communications between UM officials and biomass company executives.

What became so clear and so very troubling is that much of what we discovered in these internal documents turned out to be the exact opposite of what UM officials were telling the public.

For example, we turned up documents showing that the wood-burning biomass plant would actual increase emissions, pollution and particulate matter over the existing natural gas system. In fact, as was later reported in the Missoulian, UM’s wood-burning biomass plant would release the emissions equivalent of roughly 130 woodstoves burning on campus.

Anyone living in Missoula knows all too well about our poor air quality and fragile airshed. The American Lung Association has regularly given Missoula County an F-grade in their annual “State of the Air” report, although this spring we were upgraded to a grade of D. An improvement yes, but still nothing to gloat about.

Especially vulnerable to increased air pollution and particulates are children, the elderly and those living with asthma and reduced respiratory function. This is especially true during the winter months, when nasty inversions and air quality alerts are common in our valley. So think for a moment what a UM biomass plant pumping out the emissions equivalent of 130 woodstoves on campus would look like.

Equally as troubling was what we uncovered regarding the economics of this project. To put it mildly, it’s been difficult to get an accurate assessment from UM of the biomass plant’s up-front and long-term costs, something all Montana taxpayers deserve. For starters, we noticed in the project file that the cost of the project went from $10 million in April 2010 to $16 million by the end of the year.

When we carefully combed through UM’s financial pro forma, we also noticed that the biomass plant would need nearly $27 million for additional operation and maintenance expenses over the existing natural gas system during just the first 40 years of operation.

The pro forma was also troubling in other aspects. It over-estimated the cost of natural gas, while under-estimating the cost of wood fuel trucked to campus. As natural gas prices continued to drop sharply over the past year, UM refused to change their economic analysis to reflect this reality, despite numerous and repeated requests from the public.

So too, when UM’s attempted to secure bids for wood fuel from timber suppliers this summer, the deadline came and went without a single timber company responding to UM’s request because they could not match UM’s significantly rosy wood fuel cost projections. Again, UM refused to change their economic analysis to reflect this reality.

Well, yesterday, Christmas came earlier for those who value clean air and not wasting taxpayer dollars in tight economic times. UM President Royce Engstrom took to the podium in Turner Hall to announce that the University of Montana has suspended their wood-burning biomass plant indefinitely.

President Engstrom cited a number of reasons for suspending the biomass project, which I must point out, are the same issues and concerns that have continually been raised over the past year by WildWest Institute, Alliance for Wild Rockies and a handful of concerned citizens.

President Engstrom also offered a public apology for the recent statement made by UM Vice President Bob Duringer, in which Mr. Duringer claimed that those of us concerned with aspects of the biomass project were engaged in a “lower level of eco-terrorism.”

Finally, during the press conference it was also revealed that the University paid over half a million dollars – $541,000 to be exact – to an out-of-state consulting firm for the planning costs associated with this now suspended biomass project. Too bad the University couldn’t turn by the clock and put that half a million dollars towards some tried and true methods of reducing carbon footprints focused on conservation and energy efficiency.

As a University of Montana alum I’m pleased that UM finally pulled the plug on this wood-burning biomass plant, even if the planning process over the past year involved some unnecessary frustrations, headaches and $541,000.

At the end of the day, Missoula’s air quality – and Montana taxpayer wallets – were protected. And those are things that are worth standing up for all day, every day.

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Posted in Climate Change, Energy, Forests, logging | Tagged: | Leave a Comment »

Happy 40th Anniversary Bolle Report!

Posted by Matthew Koehler on November 18, 2010

Today, November 18th, marks the 40th anniversary of the Bolle Report being entered into the Congressional Record?

Some of you might be saying, “The Bolle What?” – and I guess you might not be alone. So here’s a quick summary.

Following World War II, the housing and building boom dramatically increased demand for timber. Up until that time, the US Forest Service (USFS) was largely what historians have come to call a “custodial” agency. Sure, between the USFS’s founding in 1905 until the mid-1940s, the agency was cutting some trees and building some roads in America’s National Forests. However, the USFS didn’t fully get into the business of road building and timber production until the post-WWII era.

And boy did they ever get into it! For example, the USFS would become the largest road building agency in the world, bulldozing and jamming more than 440,000 miles of roads onto our National Forests. In the pre-1970s era, with no real environmental laws or regulations, roads were often built right through streams or riparian areas, or built one of top of another right up the sides of mountains.

The decades of the 50s and 60s also saw the USFS greatly ramp up it’s logging levels. In order to keep up with demand (and respond to Congressional pressure) the USFS increasingly looked to large-scale clearcutting to “get the cut out.”

The Bitterroot National Forest took this one step further: clearcuts followed by building terraces on entire hillsides. Forest Service policy expert, Dr. Martin Nie of the University of Montana, has this account:

“Responding to increased demand, the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) began to more aggressively harvest timber after World War Two. This national change in management philosophy, from so-called custodian to timber production agency, was very apparent on the Bitterroot National Forest (BNF)…. Here, the USFS used clearcutting and terracing silvicultural techniques to meet its timber production goals. Several citizens of the Bitterroot Valley, however, disliked this degree of intensive forest management and charged that it was environmentally and aesthetically harmful. Among other complaints, citizens objected to the practice or intensity of clearcutting and/or terracing, stream siltation and watershed impacts, excessive road building, the level of timber harvesting, real estate effects, and the inadequate attention given to other multiple uses.”

One of those citizens was longtime Bitterroot Valley resident Guy M. Brandborg, who just happened to be the Supervisor of the Bitterroot National Forest from 1935 to 1955. Historian Frederick H. Swanson, who is currently putting the finishing touches on a book about Brandborg, last year published an excellent essay titled A Radical in the Ranks: G.M. Brandborg and the Bitterroot National Forest.

“[Brandborg] wrote mountains of correspondence to politicians, reporters, agency heads, and fellow activists, urging them to return the Forest Service to the principles he had followed while supervisor. Brandborg accompanied reporters such as Gladwin Hill of the New York Times, James Risser of the Des Moines Register, and James Nathan Miller of the Reader’s Digest on a circuit of Bitterroot clearcuts, contrasting the agency’s high-impact approach with the much more limited selective cutting he had once employed…. Brandy’s flannel-shirt-and-suspenders appearance did not hurt his credibility with reporters. As a professed “sourdough forester,” he lacked the scientific training of most contemporary Forest Service timber staffers, yet he drew on years of field experience to inform his views. He could be abrasive toward those he disagreed with, using his newspaper commentaries to castigate politicians, bureaucrats, and industry leaders whom he believed were selling out the public’s forests. Yet he acutely understood how to bring pressure on those in power, and beginning in 1968 he organized a calculated and persistent campaign that resulted in significant changes in forestry practices throughout the Forest Service.”

Dr. Nie picks up the story:

“Montana Senator Lee Metcalf, from the Bitterroot Valley himself, responded to widespread constituent complaints about forest management, especially about clearcutting and the dominant role of timber production in USFS policy, by requesting an independent study of the problem by Dean Arnold Bolle of the University of Montana’s School of Forestry. Bolle appointed a select group of faculty members from the University of Montana to investigate, and this group went further in its critique of forest management on the Bitterroot and beyond.

The Committee began its report with the startling statement that “[m]ultiple use management, in fact, does not exist as the governing principle on the Bitterroot National Forest.” It viewed the controversy as substantial and legitimate, with local and national implications. The Committee’s approach was to contrast the actions of the USFS with the written policies and laws governing forest management. From there, the “Bolle Report,” as it became known, criticized the Bitterroot’s “overriding concern for sawtimber production” from an environmental, economic, organizational, and democratic standpoint. Other multiple uses and resource values were not given enough serious consideration according to the Report: “In a federal agency which measures success primarily by the quantity of timber produced weekly, monthly and annually, the staff of the [BNF] finds itself unable to change its course, to give anything but token recognition to related values, or to involve most of the local public in any way but as antagonists.” The subculture of forestry, it seemed to the Committee, was out of step with shifting American values and goals. Though professional dogma was partly to blame, the Bolle Report also found that “[t]he heavy timber orientation is built in by legislative action and control, by executive direction and by budgetary restriction.” The Report also focused on the economic irrationality of clearcutting and terracing on the Bitterroot, and the serious lack of democratic participation in forest management.

Together with a parallel case on the Monongahela National Forest in West Virginia, the Bitterroot controversy helps explain the significant changes that were made to U.S. forest policy in the 1970s, including new guidelines on clearcutting in the National Forests, and passage of the National Forest Management Act in 1976. Though its significance continues to be debated, the latter at least partly addressed some of the issues in the Bitterroot conflict, like by placing limits on clearcutting, and giving the public a more meaningful role to play in forest management and planning.”

Posted in Forests, logging, timber industry, Wilderness | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Dr. Power: Two Views of the Tester Forest Jobs and Recreation Bill

Posted by Matthew Koehler on December 8, 2009

Note: The following commentary from economist Dr. Thomas Michael Power was presented on Montana Public Radio December 7, 2009. – MK

Two Views of the Tester Forest Jobs and Recreation Bill

By Thomas Michael Power

(Dr. Thomas Michael Power is the former Chair of the Economics Department at the University of Montana, where he currently serves as a Research Professor)

The controversy over Senator Tester’s Forest Jobs and Recreation Bill is likely to get some national attention in a week or so as the bill receives its first hearing before the Senate Subcommittee on Public Lands and Forests in the our nation’s capitol. That bill has been called both Tester’s “logging bill” as well as Tester’s “wilderness bill.” Critics point out that the title of the bill mentions “forest jobs” but does not mention “wilderness” at all, leaving some suspicion as to what the main purpose of the bill is.

Wilderness advocates who support the bill point out that the bill would add 670,000 acres of wilderness and another 225,000 acres of National Recreation Areas where timber harvest will be prohibited. That’s approaching a million acres of protected land, clearly an admirable goal.

The critics, also wilderness advocates, shake their heads in dismay because at the same time that bill appears to open so much roadless wild land to potential logging. Consider the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, Montana’s largest National Forest. It contains 3.3 million acres of land, mostly undeveloped, high lodgepole pine forest. Forest managers there have classified less than ten percent of that land as suitable for commercial timber management. Yet, Tester’s bill would classify 1.9 million acres of land as “suitable for timber production” where “timber harvest is allowed.” The 500,000 acres of new wilderness that Tester’s bill would create in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest somewhat shrinks in significance compared to the area four times as large that appears to be declared open for timber harvest. That is especially shocking since the area now declared open to logging is over eight times larger than what had previously been deemed suitable for timber harvest.

This may just be the result of bad horse trading and a conscious gamble on the part of the collaborative that originally negotiated this proposal. The fact is that the vast majority of the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest is likely to remain unroaded and unlogged indefinitely into the future, primarily protected by economics. It is far too costly to go after most of the standing inventory of trees there and those trees have little commercial value, at least for now.

Tester’s bill actually attempts to steer the logging that the bill mandates away from the backcountry and limit it to the already human dominated edges of the forest. The bill orders the Forest Service, when choosing the lands where the timber harvest is to take place, to give “priority” to lands that already have high densities of roads, have already been relatively heavily logged, and contain forests that are at high risk for insect epidemics or high-severity wildfires.

The actual meaning of these limits, however, may hinge on whether all of these criteria have to apply or whether only one of them need apply. That last criteria is loose enough that it by itself could open the entire Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest to timber harvest since lodgepole pine forests naturally tend to experience large stand-replacing fires.

The level of timber harvest that would be annually mandated on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest under Tester’s bill can also be read in either comforting or alarming terms. The bill requires 7,000 acres a year to be harvested. To supporters of the bill, this is a tiny acreage of harvest, a tiny fraction of one percent of the huge 3.3 million acre forest.

To critics, although 7,000 acres appears trivially small compared to the total size of the forest, it is not so small compared to the part of the forest deemed suitable for commercial timber harvest, 300,000 acres, of which the 7,000 acres are 2.3 percent. That level of harvest would be sustainable only if new trees grew to commercial size in about 40 years, an unlikely event in a high, cold, lodgepole pine forest in Montana.

To critics, this is simply an unsustainable level of harvest. Looking back over 40 years of timber harvest on that forest, 7,000 acres of timber harvest was reached only once, in 1971, in the heyday of aggressive Forest Service harvests across the nation. That level of harvest was once again approached in the last peak harvest year on Forest Service lands in the late 1980s when 6,000 acres were harvested. Between 1967 and 1989, when the Forest Service was still largely unhindered by environmental concerns and harvested record numbers of trees, the average acreage harvested on the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest was about 4,000 acres. The Tester bill would seek to force a harvest level two-thirds higher than that previous unfettered average harvest level.

Supporters of Tester’s bill insist that the intent is not to open up most of the forest to timber harvest but quite the opposite: to support modest timber harvests where they would do the most good and the least harm. If that is the case, the language of the bill should be tightened up to accomplish exactly that by limiting the areas open to potential timber harvests to a much smaller portion of the forest and by making clear that the “priority” areas for timber harvest are in fact those areas that have already been roaded and open to logging and where the timber harvests can help protect human habitation. Finally, the level of mandated timber harvest should be set based on what foresters indicate is a sustainable level of harvest given the characteristics of that forest.

Such a tightening up of the language and numbers in the Tester bill should be acceptable to the wilderness advocates who support this bill since it would simply assure that the bill does what they say it is intended to do. If timber interests howl in protest over such clarification that should give the rest of us pause as to exactly what the Tester bill is really all about.

Posted in Forests, logging, timber industry, Wilderness | Tagged: , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Montana Gets a Little FLAT

Posted by Matthew Koehler on April 6, 2009

Fresh off the Homegrown Prosperity Renewable Energy Tour, University of Montana graduate student – and all around great guy – Derek Kanwischer has put his considerable skills, creativity and passion for sustainable living to use with his latest project, dubbed the UM FLAT (Forum for Living with Appropriate Technology).

Billed as the “physical home for sustainability at the University of Montana,” the UM FLAT (a retro-fit of an existing home) is an experiential live-in resource for a half-dozen UM students  demonstrating the practicality of sustainable living. Kanwischer’s idea is that by living with and educating others about the social, ethical, and environmental benefits of appropriate technology, the UM FLAT will help to promote a culture of sustainability at the University.

According to Kanwischer, “Development and construction of the FLAT will provide a tremendous opportunity for interested students, faculty, and local businesses to become involved.  The process of planning, construction, and operations for the UM FLAT should be viewed as opportunities to challenge students to develop workable solutions that can be applied to life outside of the classroom.”

Once the renovation of the house is complete, Kanwischer expects the FLAT will provide a wealth of experiential opportunities for everyone involved.

“The rewarding benefits include residential demonstration of sustainable living practices, opportunities for faculty using the UM FLAT as a teaching resource, a student and faculty research forum for projects related to sustainable living, and workshops to involve the expertise and participation of the Missoula community.”

Students wishing to live in the UM FLAT must apply to the University where their applications will be reviewed by the current co-directors and board of the UM FLAT to determine who will make the most dynamic contribution to the mission and objectives of the FLAT.

Phase one of the project includes working with local contractors and student groups to come up with a suitable design for renovating our garage space into a usable demonstration and community space. This spring, the COT Carpentry Program will take the lead on this renovation, adding value to UM properties, and offering opportunities for students to work on and study a green retrofit.

Kanwischer is grateful for the opportunity to work with a small budget provided by the University and he’s relying on the generous contributions of local businesses for discount materials and consulting work.  If you want more information about the UM FLAT, or to donate time, energy or resources, please contact Derek Kanwischer at dhkanwischer@gmail.com.

Posted in Energy, Green jobs, Sustainable Solutions | Tagged: , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »