December 15, 2005

Selling Forest Ag

I am a Tree Farmer and I participate in the Forest Ag program. This program has helped many land owners get started with the active management of their forests. I think that it has done a pretty good job. More and more, however, I hear people questioning the need for this program and the motives of its participants. Little asides such as, “you’re a bunch of money grubbing, tax dodging opportunists trying to save a few bucks at the community’s expense”, sort of rile me up. It is my opinion that we do a lot of good for our communities with little our no profit for ourselves. Think about it.

We Improve Forest Health
I know, for a fact, that the Forest Ag program promotes the good health and sustainability of our forests by encouraging forest landowners to manage their forests wisely. Thinning stands of diseased, insect invested and densely populated trees allow healthy trees to flourish and make room for new growth so our forests remain vibrant, healthy and growing for all taxpayers to see and enjoy.

We Mitigate Wildfire Hazards
Forest Ag participants reduce the hazard of wildfires by reducing the fuel loads in our forests. This tends to keep fires on the ground, slowing the speed with which they can spread, and making them easier for firefighters to control and extinguish. Our work saves all taxpayers money that would otherwise have to be spent on wildfire suppression.

We Enhance Wildlife Habitat
And, what about wildlife habitat? Much of our work actually enhances the habitat for a greater variety of wildlife despite what you’ve heard about the spotted owl.

I’d say that providing tax breaks to encourage the work listed above benefits everyone.

Not Good Enough? There’s More!
Although each of the arguments noted above may appeal to some opponents of Forest Ag, we have used these arguments for a long time now and there are still a lot of people who are not convinced that a property tax exemption for Forest Ag is justified. But, what if we could also argue that the Forest Ag program could also: reduce heating costs in public buildings; provide more local jobs; reduce our dependence on foreign sources of energy; reduce the “greenhouse effect”; and, provide a dependable, local and sustainable fuel source? Well, you may soon be able to do just that!

The U.S. Forest Service is showing us the way. Yes! That U.S. Forest Service!

The Forest Ag program requires participants to create and sell product in order to be eligible for a property tax exemption. In Colorado, for some years now, Tree Farmers and Forest Ag participants have been complaining about the lack of market for our products. However, while we complain, local markets are being created for wood in states as near as Montana and Idaho. How you may well ask? The answer is “Fuels For Schools.”

The Fuels for Schools Program
The Fuels for Schools Program is an innovative venture between public schools, State Foresters and Regional Foresters of the Northern and Intermountain Regions of the Forest Service. This program helps public schools retrofit their current fuel or gas heating system to a biomass (read WOOD) heating system, significantly reducing heating costs. The Darby School District in Montana is up and running and creating a lot of buzz in the intermountain west. Interested schools are springing into action in Nevada, Idaho, North Dakota, and Utah.

What’s Happening In These States?
Associated Press writer Anne Wallace Allen recently reported:

Montana has five (FIVE!) biomass-heated schools, said Dave Atkins in Missoula,
Mont., who coordinates the U.S. Forest Service's biomass program for the region. A school in Ely, Nev., is also heated with biomass through the program. Another six Fuels for Schools projects are underway in Montana, and there are other biomass heating systems in neighboring states. Biomass supplies about 9 percent of all industrial energy consumed in Oregon, according to that state's Department of Energy.

About 30 (that’s THIRTY!) public schools in Vermont are heated by biomass, said Tim Maker, executive director of BERC -- with two or three schools being added each year. Vermont is the leader, but "it's slowly permeating out from Vermont," said Maker, noting that Maine has one school biomass system and New Hampshire has two. His group is now working in New Mexico and South Dakota to help install biomass school systems there.

With biomass, "we can switch our rural communities off fossil fuels and onto
local resources," Maker said. "That's money that could be kept in the local
regional economy instead of shipping it to energy companies in other parts of
the country, or suppliers in other countries."

Atkins converted several conventional heating fuels to units of dollars-per million BTUs for comparison. Fuel oil is now about $18 per million BTUs; propane and natural gas are at about $14 per million BTUs. Wood chips, bought by the ton, compare at about $3.50 per million BTUs, Atkins said.


Why tell me?
Here’s the deal. There are a lot of people out there quietly arguing that the Forest Ag program is a boondoggle that isn’t justified. If you feel otherwise, you may have to stand up and be counted. And, if you’re willing to stand up and defend the program you may want to be familiar with all the arguments that can justify it’s worth to the public.

You may already be familiar with the arguments that Forest Ag participants:

  • improve forest health,
  • reduce the danger and cost of wildfire,
  • and improve wildlife habitat.

However, the arguments that one of the products of our efforts can also:

What should I be doing?
Well, we have more than enough people coming up with grand ideas. Lots more are willing to applaud while someone else labors. The surest way of getting something done is to roll up your sleeves and just “Git ‘er Done!” Here is how to get started.

First, get familiar with all the benefits and drawbacks to heating with wood. Using wood as fuel to heat public buildings can produce the benefits listed above, but it’s not a panacea for all communities. Your local Tree Farm representative can provide you with or show you where to find the facts that you need to identify when and where wood would make an ideal fuel for heating. (See the contact list below)

Second, don’t assume that someone else is getting this done. Get together with other forest landowners and plan how to best alert the public of the current and potential benefits that Forest Ag participants provide to their communities. The Colorado Tree Farmers have local groups that can help brainstorm problems and divide the workload when action is required. Call your district office of the Colorado State Forest Service to help you locate or set up a local group.

Third, work with your group to contact your local school district board members, town council members, and the local news media and explain how the work that you do in your forest already benefits the whole community. Convince them to order a study to determine the feasibility of heating some of your local public buildings with wood, so that even greater benefits can be achieved.


Note, I’m afraid that doing all this isn’t going to help you get rich. Although there is definitely the potential of selling wood down the line, some landowners in other states are initially donating their slash and firewood to schools just so it will be utilized for the good of the community rather than wasted and to help get their project off the ground. Encouraging the use of wood for fuel in public schools is the next logical step for those of us who see our Forest Ag tax exemption as a tool that helps us to continue to be good stewards of our forests, the greatest sustainable natural resource that we possess.

You may already be working with one of the Colorado State Forest Service foresters listed below. Call them and ask them for more information. You can make a difference.

Near Boulder? Write or call Allen Owen:
- Email alowen@lamar.colostate.edu
- Phone (303) 823-5774

Near Durango? Write or call Dan Wand:
- Email danwand@lamar.colostate.edu
- Phone (970)247-5250

Near Fort Collins? Write or Call Mike Hughes:
- Email mhughes@lamar.colostate.edu
- Phone (970)491-8453