By Ellen Drew, regional manager, RCAC Community and Environmental Services

Reprinted from Rural Matters, 2016 Issue 2

Trainer makes biochar with home made equipment.
April 2015 training in Mora, New Mexico. Trainer, Ralph Barela (man in black hat), is demonstrating how to make biochar as a soil amendment at home with equipment found locally. Photo taken by Ellen Drew, RCAC.

Mora County, New Mexico is known for its independence and indomitable spirit. With a history steeped in ruffians and rogues this southwestern enclave of feisty individualists has an agrarian background dating back hundreds, even thousands, of years to the conquistadores and before that, to Native Americans. These individuals sustainably lived on their lands and the many watersheds, depending upon neighbors and cultural traditions to carve a lifestyle rich with meaning and spirit.

In 2012, RCAC was awarded a USDA Rural Community Development Initiative (RCDI) grant in Mora County to assist the community with updating its 2006 County Land Use Plan on watersheds, water quality, woody biomass and other updates consistent with its historic planning. Partnering with Collaborative Visions, a small nonprofit that empowers rural communities, RCAC also conducted a five-month leadership institute, graduating 33 local citizens. Topics included negotiation, conflict resolution, volunteerism and project management through a facilitated leadership process. RCAC facilitates the process so the communities can determine which directions they wish to go. This project fostered collaboration among community stakeholders.

Woody biomass is trees and woody plants, including limbs, tops, needles, leaves, and other woody parts, grown in a forest, woodland, or rangeland environment, that are the by-products of forest management.

RCAC worked with Mora County to develop an action plan, create reasonable timeframes and objectives, and analyze the feasibility of potential renewable energy uses in local facilities. One potential renewable energy source in the area is woody biomass. Woody biomass is trees and woody plants, including limbs, tops, needles, leaves, and other woody parts, grown in a forest, woodland, or rangeland environment, that are the by-products of forest management.1 The woody biomass can be used to create bioenergy and bio-based products like lumber. Woody biomass is not yet being harvested at any great, bankable scale in this area of northern New Mexico. Markets for the harvested woody biomass are critical and need to be established somewhat simultaneously with developing processes for harvesting the local wood. To apply for a loan from a bank a business or entrepreneur must be able to prove a 20 –30 year horizon of woody biomass resources is available to be able to repay the loan. This is called “bankable woody biomass” and has, during the years, proven to be much more challenging than on first inspection. Challenges include trying to account for public and private lands, different types of trees, transportation and many other variables.

More than five years ago, an historic effort was made by a nonprofit, Sustainable Communities Inc. (SCI), to document and map the potential energy related woody biomass feedstock, assets and resources in northern New Mexico.

In 2014 as a part of RCAC’s effort, New Mexico Highlands University furthered the mapping through its Forestry Research Institute to better pinpoint watersheds, tributaries, lakes, ponds, wells and other water resources in the Mora Valley watersheds.

Also in 2014, RCAC was awarded a small USDA solid waste grant to work in Mora County on its woody biomass issues during a 12-month process designed to incrementally prepare them to begin to flexibly manage regional woody biomass waste streams from the forests so the waste does not end up in the landfills, now or in the future. Anticipated outcomes include eliminating woody biomass from solid waste landfill waste streams by building both markets and producers and fostering a woody biomass economy in northern New Mexico to reduce or eliminate catastrophic fires and watershed degradation. The process includes a number of approaches: entrepreneurialism, economic development or other land management practices.

The town of Mora and the surrounding areas in Mora County are the headwaters of five key watersheds that provide water to thousands of people in New Mexico and Texas, with water running east to the Canadian River and ultimately into the Mississippi River. In the 1800s, local forests naturally burned every three to five years, but now the forests are dying from severe extended drought conditions, climate change and insect infestations that make the area ripe for “super fires.” There is significant need to reduce forest biomass volumes. Mora County is looking to the recovered biomass as a potential energy source and a piece of the area’s overall wood timber industries, possibly to provide combined heat and power for the courthouse, library and high school that are co-located in town. The bio-waste converted to energy could meet local heat and energy needs and create local jobs.

Being proactive may be the only way to minimize the impact of fires in our critical watersheds. The forests need to burn to be healthy. The magnitude of today’s fires does not compare with frequent fires from hundreds of years ago. Forestry management policies that did not allow fires for more than 100 years now result in devastating fires costing on average $5 million per day to fight.

The state of New Mexico is planning a feasibility study for fire mitigation in northern New Mexico in the fall of 2015 to determine if there is enough biomass to support a small commercial pellet plant that requires up to 200,000 wet weight tons of woody biomass per year to be economically viable. This Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified company could be employee owned and would use the dead wood in the forest that many wood industries are not able to use. The plant is said to require no water to produce extruded commercial pellets.

Downsides to developing this pellet plant may include air pollution, transportation, local economic development issues, as well as the addition of recycled plastic bags, a potential waste problem, as a current part of the pellet processing.

The feasibility study will look at the Sangre de Cristo tip of the Rocky Mountains, a distinct geographic area from southern Colorado to northern New Mexico to Santa Fe, with a forest comprised of public lands, including the Santa Fe Wilderness, many private lands, and at least nine watersheds arching like a backbone; it is an area approximately 160 miles long and 60 miles wide.  Mora County is in a large section of this beautiful mountainous area.

Woody biomass resources in this larger landscape of northern New Mexico and southern Colorado make huge impacts on a much larger economic scale regionally for products and services for the entire four-corner area of New Mexico, Utah, Arizona and Colorado.  Large regional approaches provide a significantly larger degree of potential success through networks of relationships, the number one key ingredient for community survival. These studies on woody biomass present a clear example of how Mora County communities are linking their local economy, their communities, and their environment. They’re seeking ways to strengthen these areas and to integrate solutions among them with durable solutions to support all three sectors—public, private, and nonprofit.