Friday, September 21, 2007


Lawyer Has His Science Mixed Up
Thursday, September 20, 2007
The Mountain View Journal
by Bryan Bird, Forest Guardians

The Mountain View Telegraph has printed the Guest View of David Cohen (Aug. 30), a lawyer representing the corporation Western Water and Power Production LLC, for which he is also the president and chief advocate. WWP is the developer of a power plant south of Estancia that would burn forests to generate electricity.

It is up to the reader to judge Mr. Cohen's expertise in forest science and ranching in New Mexico, but some of his assertions require a response.

From the outset Mr. Cohen's scientific credentials are strained by his insistence that piñon-juniper forests are an infestation leading to forest fires and harm to the aquifer. Both are contradicted by science.

Piñon-juniper forests have expanded their range in the last century, but the exact cause is not clear: changing climatic conditions, livestock grazing, fire suppression, or some combination is likely to blame. What is clear is that we cannot control climate, but we can control the other factors. If we choose to clear grasslands of piñon and juniper, it will only be treating a symptom and not dealing with the root causes. Maintaining cleared grasslands will require grazing be curtailed and grass fires allowed to burn more regularly. Is that what Mr. Cohen advocates?

Mr. Cohen invokes sustainability, but unfortunately misapplies the concept. He confuses long-term human use of the land with self-sustaining ecosystems.

This is never more obvious when he refers to "rotting brush residue." We learn in high-school science that soil is built from decomposing organic matter. Without it, there would be only rock: trees and grass would not have the nutrients necessary to grow. Removing "rotting brush residue" robs us of our future soil and in turn is counter to the sustainability of life in the basin.

The Estancia Basin currently has nearly pristine air quality. Though the emissions from the biomass power plant may comply with air pollution standards, the smoke stack is still a new source, annually belching 231 tons of nitrogen dioxide, 221 tons of carbon monoxide, 48 tons of volatile organic compounds, 40 tons of sulfur dioxide, 79 tons of particulate matter, not to mention toxic chemicals including mercury and formaldehyde. This air pollution is not there now.

The power plant proponents have never provided satellite imagery or any other credible demonstration that sufficient "excess" wood is present for its 30-year lifetime. The power plant will require about 480,000 tons of chipped forest a year and to be cost effective, the forests providing the wood chips must be within a 50-mile radius. The USGS ( demonstrates that there are 1.28 million acres of piñon-juniper on all state, federal and private lands in a 50-mile radius around Estancia. This includes the Sandia, Manzano and Gallinas mountains and surrounding foothills as well as the Chupadero Mesa, Clines Corners and other upland areas.

The Forest Service has reported from Nevada that piñon-juniper thinning produced 5 tons per acre on the low end and 20.6 tons per acre on the high end with the averages around 8 to 12 tons per acre (

If one uses 10 tons per acre for a basic calculation, the result is less than impressive. If all acres of piñon-juniper in the 50-mile radius were aggressively thinned the plant could be fueled for 26.6 years. But realistically only a fraction of those acres will be available to WWP resulting in a grim projection for its viability and undue pressure on the basin's limited forests.

This calculation ignores the wood annually removed by local cutters for home heating in the region. Where will they go for wood? Forest Guardians continues to stand-by the NM Forest Restoration Principles but those guidelines only address forests other than piñon-juniper. (

In fact, the principles addressing piñon-juniper harvest remain unfinished because the science is incomplete.

It is surprising to see WWP continue to exploit our anxiety about wildfire and water use in piñon-juniper forests. Fire in piñon-juniper forests is uncommon; grasslands tend to burn more often and more fiercely. It takes rare weather conditions and steep terrain to get a fire roaring through piñon-juniper. As for water and aquifers, the latest research from the basin, as reported in the Mountain View Telegraph on June 28, demonstrates that thinning piñon-juniper forests will have no recharge effect on the Estancia Basin aquifer. In fact, shallow soil moisture is recharged faster through the root systems of piñon and juniper trees than in bare grasslands.

The bottom line is that Mr. Cohen is grasping at straws to justify his corporation's ire to build a biomass power plant: a marginal proposition at best in our dry, lightly forested region. Now that WWP has received its air pollution permit from the state, the power plant is one step closer to reality. But biomass has a dark side and if we are going to seriously consider it as a power source in New Mexico, we must demand it be clean, renewable, and not unduly impact our water, wildlife and forests. The viable alternative is solar and wind, not coal, oil or gas.

Bryan Bird is Public Lands Director at Forest Guardians, a regional conservation organization that protects and restores wildlife and wildlands in the West. For more detailed information on the proposed biomass plant, visit

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