When Varlin Higbee looks out at the scrubby forest of pinyon pine and juniper that fills the high desert outside this former Union Pacific Railroad town, only one thought crosses his mind:
“It’s just a wildfire waiting to happen,” the Lincoln County commissioner says of the low, bushy trees.
And Higbee isn’t the only one expressing his distaste for plants.
Despite the many uses Native Americans once had for pinyon and juniper forests—not the least of which was subsistence from pine nuts—ranchers and federal land managers in the American Southwest have now come to to consider them as a highly flammable and invasive scourge.
In parts of California and much of the Great Basin, landowners have declared war on pinyon pines and junipers, clearing them from pastures with chains, bulldozers, saws and herbicides. At the same time, there is growing interest in trees as a renewable energy source, such as in California’s Lassen County, where 150,000 tons of trees are injected into the Honey Lake Power Plant each year to produce energy for customers, including San Diego Gas. & Electric.
More recently, Higbee and other Nevada officials have proposed converting them into green methanol — a biofuel that could be used for everything from generating electricity to powering cargo ships calling at the ports of Los Angeles and from Long Beach.
In January, Nevada Governor Joe Lombardo signed a declaration of agreement with Denmark to develop an industrial park in Lincoln County where methanol would be extracted from wood and used as a fuel additive to reduce carbon emissions. greenhouse gases from diesel engines.
To hear Lombardo tell it, it’s a match made in heaven.
“This innovative and collaborative technology project produces clean, renewable energy, while simultaneously using trees that need to be thinned to maintain a healthy forest,” Lombardo said.
Environmental groups, however, have criticized the plan. Among other criticisms, they say the deal with Denmark sets the stage for a fight for the future of an ecologically rich landscape, much of which has remained untouched by the glitz and bustle of Las Vegas and Reno .
Gary Hughes of Biofuelwatch, an advocacy group focused on the impact of bioenergy development, dismissed the proposal as “a technological dead end and a heartbreaking waste of healthy trees.”
Denmark – home to Maersk, the world’s largest container shipping company – has committed to going fossil fuel-free by 2050, and bioenergy is a key part of this ambitious effort.
“Denmark is at the forefront of renewable energy development and closer collaboration between Nevada and Denmark can only strengthen our joint efforts to create economic growth and good-paying jobs – while doing good for the environment and our planet,” reads a press release from Denmark. Ambassador to the United States Jesper Møller Sørensen.
Nevada officials want to site the facility amid about 1.3 million acres of pine and juniper forests on public land about 150 miles northeast of Las Vegas. The proposed site is also crossed by a Union Pacific mainline that terminates at the ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach.
The facility, officials say, could attract $260 million in investment, create 150 badly needed local jobs and become a model for creating similar industrial parks in other parts of Nevada.
But there are significant environmental problems related to the scalping of eastern Nevada’s mountainous public lands of century-old trees 15 to 20 feet tall.
“I would be surprised if this proposal came to fruition,” Hughes said. “So far, efforts to produce methanol from wood on a large scale for the aviation industry, for example, have all failed.”
Patrick Donnelly, director of the Great Basin Center for Biological Diversity, called it a new chapter in “our nation’s 200-year war against pinyon and juniper ecosystems.”
“Every generation finds a new excuse to justify their destruction because they do not provide the economic benefits obtained from the tall pines favored by the timber industry,” he said.
“Now it seems like the state of Nevada is popping the champagne corks because they think they’ve found a way to make money from trees,” Donnelly said. “But I see it as a short-term carbon benefit at the expense of the long-term carbon sequestration benefits provided by a healthy forest.”
The development of renewable energy facilities – solar, wind, geothermal and biomass – on public lands is a top priority for the federal government as it seeks to reduce the nation’s dependence on fossil fuels and curb global warming.
Toward this goal, the Bureau of Land Management works closely in Lincoln County with the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, Engineers Denmark and Sixco Nevada Inc. – a consortium of companies focused on deploying new technologies – to develop the proposal.
In the eyes of the BLM, pinyon pines and junipers are weed species that invade sagebrush rangelands and increase the risk of wildfires. They say a glut of pinyon and juniper forests fueled New Mexico’s Calf Canyon-Hermits Peak Fire in 2022, which burned 341,735 acres, a state record.
But environmentalists say the loss of trees outweighs the benefits of biofuel and biomass production.
Pinyon and juniper forests absorb atmospheric carbon through the process of photosynthesis and have been widespread for thousands of years across much of Nevada and Utah, as well as parts of California, Idaho , Oregon, Wyoming and Baja California. Critics of the biofuel project say the role of forests in storing carbon is essential in the fight against climate change.
Environmentalists also fear that the loss and degradation of pinyon and juniper forests poses a significant threat to a number of animal species, including the bright blue pinyon jay, which is on the endangered species list. study at the federal level.
The Western Watershed Project and the Center for Biological Diversity filed a lawsuit in U.S. District Court challenging the BLM’s approval of a plan to remove pinyon and juniper forests on more than 380,000 acres of sagebrush brush on federal lands in eastern Nevada.
The lawsuit claims the plan would eradicate habitat for endangered sage grouse and pine jays through techniques such as “chaining” – the act of pulling an anchor chain from a ship in the US Navy between two bulldozers to uproot and crush pinyon, juniper and sagebrush forests.
Derick Hembd, president of Sixco Nevada, said the governor’s proposal calls for using shears and saws to harvest individual trees, leaving saplings and sagebrush intact.
It remains to be seen, however, whether concerns about the future of pinyon jays and other creatures threaten to stall or derail the project in rural Lincoln County, which is best known as a gateway to the facility secret military unit of Area 51 of the US Air Force.
But Higbee, 63, has high hopes for the proposal that could also breathe new life into struggling rural communities such as Caliente, where the population of about 1,100 hasn’t budged in decades.
“We have to grow,” Higbee said with frustration. “I’m going to do everything in my power to get this project up and running.”
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