Vail Valley Voices: Why the Vail Valley needs to be swept by biomass hysteria
When I was about the age of my oldest son Nick, 9, I lived for three years in Germany, where my brother and I would spend endless hours scouring the woods for World War II artifacts.
We found a lot of shell casings, hunks of helmets, bits of hand grenades, but we didn’t find much underbrush, rotting wood or overall forest clutter – especially close to town – because the Germans like their forests immaculately groomed.
This is a strange concept to those of us who’ve spent any time in the American West, where for decades forest management on public lands has amounted to essentially ignoring the woods except to vigorously and expensively suppress forest fires.
Especially in Colorado, where skinny lodgepole pines don’t have the logging value of forests in the Northwest, millions of acres have been allowed to age uniformly and therefore become more susceptible to a massive mountain pine beetle outbreak.
Now more than 2 million acres of trees are dead or dying, and we’re just one drought away from a wildfire that will make the 2002 Hayman Fire (138,000 acres) look like a backyard barbecue pit – both in terms of damage and carbon emissions.
State and federal officials are scrambling for meager funds in the midst of a severe recession to “mitigate” the situation, but that equates to carving out defensible spaces around towns to give firefighters a place to do battle when – not if — a monster forest fire hits.
What we really need to do is take a lesson from the Europeans whose mountain resorts were in many ways the models for Vail and Beaver Creek and start farming the forests in what fire officials call the WUI (pronounced woo-ee), or Wildland Urban Interface. That’s basically the area where forest meets town.
I don’t mean just cutting down, slashing up and trucking off trees in high-value recreational and residential areas like Eagle County, but actively clearing out the beetle-kill and then cultivating fast-growing lodgepole pines under a long-term stewardship contract with the Forest Service in order to continuously feed centralized biomass power plants in Vail and Avon.
You might think such heating and electricity-generating systems are yet another Euro-concept that — like 30-hour work weeks and unshaven armpits — we ought to ignore, but consider that Beaver Creek’s sister resort in Lech, Austria, has a biomass power plant that heats 90 percent of the ski town’s lodges.
Also consider that Austria derives 11 percent of its primary power and 21 percent of its heat production from biomass, according to the International Energy Agency, and that wood gasification – a high-heat, low-oxygen burning process – is virtually carbon neutral, and you begin to wonder why we haven’t been doing this for years.
The primary answer, of course, is cost. Natural gas is relatively cheap here, but even that’s changing. The price of that abundant Western Slope commodity is on a never-ending roller-coaster ride caused by global market forces and increasing environmental opposition, while the costs of ignoring our forests are growing by the day.
Even conservationists who for years legally challenged logging seem unnerved by the prospect of massive wildfires. Aside from a few extremists in the late ’90s, not every environmentalist wants to be blamed for Vail burning to the ground.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently awarded $1 million in stimulus funds to four biomass projects in Colorado, and a spokesman for the Governor’s Energy Office expects state funding for biomass will double or triple in the next year, with about 20 projects receiving some money in the next two years.
Middlebury College in Vermont this year cranked up a $12 million, 8-megawatt biomass plant that it expects will cut its heating-oil consumption from 2 million to 1 million gallons a year, reducing its carbon dioxide emissions by 40 percent (or 12,500 metric tons). See http://www.middlebury.edu/
That $12 million price tag is about what this community spent to convert an old gravel pit in Edwards into a gorgeous new riverfront park. That open space is a great benefit to Eagle County residents, but imagine the marketing value (not to mention fire safety, employment and renewable energy benefits) of a local biomass power plant.
Vail Resorts plans to spend more than $1 billion on its green-built Ever Vail base village, and the local electric co-op, Holy Cross Energy, is spending $100 million on a new coal-fired power plant near Pueblo. Those figures make $12 million seem quite reasonable.
So, following in the footsteps of former Vail mayor and Austrian native Ludwig Kurz, some local politicians – most notably Vail Councilman Mark Gordon and Avon Councilman Brian Sipes – have rekindled the idea of biomass power plants in their towns.
They deserve the full financial and philosophical support of the citizens of Eagle County, every single metro district and homeowners association, the new green-majority board of Holy Cross Energy, and Vail Resorts to finally make something happen on the biomass power production front.
The ski company, which years ago talked a good game about renewable energy generation when it considered wind turbines atop Vail Mountain (only to back off when it discovered buying wind-power credits was far cheaper), should take the lead.
Vail has the opportunity to use its high-profile brand to show the rest of the nation that renewable energy can solve a crisis in part created by global warming, becoming an eco-tourism destination and statewide environmental showcase in the process.
Believe me, there is no more burning issue right now in the Vail Valley.
David O. Williams, former editor and reporter at the Vail Trail and Vail Daily, covers Western Slope energy issues for RealVail.com and the Colorado Independent. Read more of his work at
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