The small town of Pablo near the base of the Mission Mountains has long been considered a harbinger of land stewardship. As the governmental seat of the Flathead Indian Reservation, the tribal community has harnessed its vast natural resources for a long-standing timber industry while preserving its sacred landscape through environmental policy, including the first-ever tribal wilderness designation along the western front of its iconic mountain range in 1982.
This year the Confederate Salish and Kootenai Tribes (CSKT) are embarking on another pioneering project aimed at creating a viable biofuel industry using waste wood that carpets the region’s vast forestlands.
The CSKT have agreed to partner with a team of researchers from the Northwest Advanced Renewables Alliance (NARA) on an expansive $40 million research project.
NARA is a broad collective of scientists and engineers from public universities and private industry that is studying the feasibility of creating jet fuel using wood debris and residuals.
The memo of understanding between NARA and the CSKT went into effect last month. Officials presented the tribal council a detailed overview of the five-year project and its goals on Feb. 5.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture is funding the five-year project with one of its largest grants ever awarded. It launched in August 2011.
NARA researchers envision developing alternatives to petroleum-based fuels and chemicals for commercial airlines and the U.S. military. The concept is possible thanks to breakthroughs in modern science and technology, but for a new industry to be viable requires an extensive supply chain.
The USDA has described the project as “high risk, high reward.” Biomass power has been under scrutiny for years, as critics have doubted the net benefits of renewable energy on a large scale. But proponents of burning throwaway wood and other organic materials for biofuel consider it integral for diversifying and improving the nation’s energy portfolio.
If accomplished, NARA’s project would provide an alternative to fossil fuels while also creating an industry with lucrative opportunities. The four-state region of Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana burns through three-quarters of a billion gallons of jet fuel every year, according to NARA.
Researchers have been identifying locations with existing logging experience and infrastructure, such as former logging mills and road systems through forestlands. Within a year, NARA tabbed Western Montana as a prime corridor.
“You have great assets out there, in terms of natural resources and physical capital,” said Daniel Schwartz, professor of chemical engineering at the University of Washington and chief of NARA’s tribal partnership project team.
“It’s been a very open community to having us come in. It seems like there’s a real appetite to utilize some of the legacy facilities and resources that are out there.”
The CSKT manage roughly 257,000 acres of forestland on their reservation, as well as a 1,000-acre section in Lolo National Forest specifically for experimental fuel-management projects.
Jim Durglo, head of the CSKT forestry department, spoke about the new partnership in NARA’s latest newsletter.
“The Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes have maintained an active approach to land stewardship,” Durglo was quoted as saying.
He added, “We understand that it will require a large landscape approach to make a bioconversion system economically viable, and we want to be a part of that solution. A viable market for products from forest residues is important because it also meets CSKT goals for income, employment and air quality.”
The newsletter includes a further explanation into the CSKT’s motivations behind its partnership with NARA: “With recent mill closures in western Montana, the CSKT reservation is interested in developing new markets for biomass residues while supporting their broad forest management goals.”
Beginning this year, the two groups will survey the availability of biomass and infrastructure near Pablo and the surrounding region. NARA’s tribal projects team will generate a report that outlines the area’s forest resources and capacity for harvesting waste wood products such as slash and transporting them to revamped logging facilities. Students from Salish Kootenai College will assist in the research and help compile data for the report, which is expected to be completed by late summer, according to Schwartz.
The information will provide NARA an economic, commercial and social analysis with the overarching goal of determining whether Pablo could become part of a larger supply chain for a renewable energy market.
“Every landowner has distinct management goals,” Schwartz said. “Every piece of landscape has very specific needs and goals. Bioenergy can fit into those, but you have to find the right fit. That’s really the special part that the tribal project has. We have a strong working relationship with one of the region’s major forest managers.”
For more information on NARA, visit www.nararenewables.org.
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